TIKRIT, Iraq (AFP) – Grieving residents of Tikrit buried their dead on Wednesday, enraged that a band of gunmen and suicide bombers had managed to breach security to launch an assault a building in which 58 people were killed.
A curfew imposed Tuesday, shortly after the early afternoon attack on the provincial council building, remained in force. Streets were deserted and shops shuttered in the city that was former dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
In Tuesday’s attack, gunmen swarmed into the provincial council building after a suicide bomber cleared the way. Security reinforcements that arrived 20 minutes later were met by a car bomb.
For more than five hours the gunmen, wearing military uniforms and suicide vests by police accounts, kept security forces at bay, shooting at them from inside the building.
Police and hospital sources said at least two suicide bombers detonated their payload inside the building, and four others died when security forces stormed the building.
By that time, 58 people lay dead and 97 had been wounded.
Witnesses said the gunmen stormed the building and opened fire indiscriminately.
“When they came, they threw several grenades and began shooting in all directions inside the building. There were dozens of people and employees,” Hussein al-Shatab, a member of the provincial council, told AFP.
“Many of us were able to escape from the rear of the building,” he said.
Three members of the provincial council were among the dead, including the head of the health committee, Wathiq Shaker. His brother Hafez demanded Wednesday the resignation of Governor Ahmed Abdallah Abed and the provincial police chief.
“How was this carnage possible in a building that is the symbol of local authorities?” the 40-year-old veterinarian asked.
“Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently said that Iraq had become the most stable and safest country in the region. Where is that security?” asked Mahmoud al-Bazi, a 35-year-old teacher.
“This attack… happened because of the faults of the security services and central government,” he said.
The provincial council declared three days of mourning as police and soldiers deployed across Tikrit.
Security was also tightened at entry points to the Sunni-majority province of Salaheddin in which Tikrit lies, just north of Baghdad.
In a statement Wednesday, Maliki promised that “the criminals who organised and carried out this crime will not go unpunished.”
He said an investigation committee had been formed, and he wanted its findings “as soon as possible.”
The attack was the deadliest since an August 17 suicide bombing against a Baghdad army recruitment centre that killed 59 people and wounded 125.
Although no group has claimed responsibility, the strike bore all the hallmarks of the Islamic State in Iraq, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, and was a replica of at least three similar attacks last year in Baghdad.
The same tactics were used last year in a June 13 attack on the Central Bank that killed 15 people, a September 5 assault on a military complex in which 12 were killed, and an October 1 bloodbath at a Baghdad cathedral in which 46 Christians were killed.
Violence has dramatically dropped since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but Tuesday’s bloodbath demonstrated that some armed groups still retain the ability to launch major attacks.
With nine months left before the US military pulls out its remaining 50,000 troops and completes its withdrawal, such attacks raise serious questions about whether Iraqi forces are up to the task of maintaining security.
The US military said its forces rapidly responded to the attack and some were lightly wounded, but that it played only a supportive role.
The troops “responded to the attack as it was occurring,” and joined Iraqi forces who were already on the scene, a US military spokesman in Iraq told AFP in a statement.
“Some of the soldiers received minor wounds while responding, but all were able to continue duties,” it added.
“Our assistance was limited to providing aerial surveillance of the scene and keeping our soldiers on site to receive further requests for assistance if needed,” it added.