POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 12, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 5:36 a.m. HST, Mar 12, 2012
BAGHDAD (AP) — Attacks against al-Qaida's favorite targets in Iraq killed 14 people Monday as insurgents struck security forces, a government office and jewelry stores, demonstrating a continued threat from armed groups as the country prepares to host a meeting of the Arab world's top leaders.
Security officials expect al-Qaida to ramp up violence over the next few weeks as Baghdad prepares to host the annual Arab League summit at the end of the month.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's strikes, and numerous armed groups in Iraq have mixed attacks on political targets with money-making criminal operations. But al-Qaida in Iraq for years has been believed to fund itself in part with cash and gold stolen from jewelry stores.
Militants struck first in a pre-dawn raid Monday in the city of Tarmiyah, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Baghdad, where police said gunmen in at least two cars attacked the local mayor's office. Three policemen were killed, police and health officials said. The mayor was not in his office at the time.
A half hour later and a few miles (kilometers) away, gunmen targeted a police patrol in a drive-by shooting. Two policemen were killed, officials said, and it was not known if the gunmen were the same group who attacked the mayor's office.
A few hours later, two carloads of robbers armed with grenades and guns killed nine people and wounded 14 in a coordinated strike on an eastern Baghdad gold market, officials said. The militants simultaneously attacked jewelry stores and a nearby checkpoint.
Baghdad officials said two policemen, two soldiers and two goldsmiths were among the dead at the small market in the Shiite neighborhood of Ur.
"At first we heard shootings from the other side of the market, near the police checkpoint," said eyewitness Maitham Moussa, 30, who owns of a dairy shop about 50 yards (meters) from the jewelry stores. "Then we heard shootings very close to us. When the women started to yell, they started to open fire into the air and set off sound bombs."
He said people fled the area and huddled together in a nearby alley to escape the siege. "I saw a woman was lying on the ground with a toddler," Moussa said. "There was blood near the woman, but I'm not sure if she was injured or if was the baby's blood."
A police officer said the gunmen stole gold and cash after the late-morning heist, which the insurgents pulled off despite a gunfight with nearby security forces. Iraqi Army Gen. Hassan al-Baydhani of Baghdad's military command said one of the gunmen was arrested but the rest escaped.
A doctor in a nearby Baghdad hospital confirmed the police casualty figures. They all spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information. Al-Baydhani put the number of dead at six. Conflicting casualty totals are common in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Iraq.
Although violence has dropped significantly since the sectarian fighting that brought Iraq to the edge of civil war just five years ago, deadly attacks still happen almost every day.
U.S. officials as recently as September said jewelry robberies were a main source of funding for al-Qaida in Iraq as it grapples with dwindling financial support. The Sunni militant movement also frequently targets officials of the Shiite-led government in a campaign to undermine confidence in its authority.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.