Gunman Pose As Iraqi Soldiers, Execute 25

Twenty-five people were shot to death by gunmen dressed in Iraqi Army uniforms early Saturday morning in a Sunni village south of Baghdad. The attackers rolled into the town in two vans and dragged dozens of people out of their homes. The victims were handcuffed and shot. Host Scott Simon speaks to NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence about the violence.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Twenty-five people were shot to death by gunmen dressed in Iraqi Army uniforms early Saturday morning in a Sunni village south of Baghdad. The attackers rolled into the town in two vans and dragged dozens of people out of their homes. The victims were handcuffed and shot.

The massacre occurs at a time when the U.S. government is relying on legitimate Iraqi troops to quell sectarian violence, as thousands of U.S. troops leave the country.

Joined now by NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence.

Quil, thanks for being with us.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you.

SIMON: And first, what details can you share with us? What's known?

LAWRENCE: Well, we have just police reports so far. The entire area has been locked down. We haven't been able to get down to the scene of the attack and weve just managed to contact a few people by phone. It seems like the victims were all Sunnis, and part of the tribal Awakening, these groups of tribal fighters who turned against al-Qaida in the last few years and helped American troops bring security to most of Sunni Iraq.

This was an al-Qaida stronghold three or four years ago. These were people who helped fight al-Qaida, so it could be a revenge attack.

SIMON: And I wonder what Iraqi authorities say about necessarily where they're focusing their interests and suspicions now.

LAWRENCE: They're focusing on groups like al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, associated groups like that. There was an arrest on Thursday of someone who was supposed to have been the local leader of these Islamist militants there. It could be retaliation or it could be just a general revenge against people who helped the U.S.

There are rumors flying in this political season, including on one anti-government TV station, that would imply that it actually was government troops. It's a Shia-dominated government targeting Sunnis. These are all rumors at this point, but it shows you just how fertile the scene is here for that sort of speculation.

SIMON: Well, then help us understand what a massacre like this means politically, the question must be raised, now that Iraq is still trying to form a new government after the elections last month.

LAWRENCE: Iraqi and American authorities had been warning us for months that after the election but before the government forms, which could takes months, is going to be a very dangerous time where violent actors are going to try and exploit that. There has been no clear winner in the election, but the votes came down generally on sectarian lines. So I've heard both Shia and Sunni here say that if the other side wins and forms a government, there's going to be no place left for me in Iraq. So this is definitely playing on people's fears and it's possibly the motive of the actors to try and stir up this sort of sectarian violence we saw here a few years ago.

SIMON: And any indication, Quil, that you have received from U.S. government officials or people in the military that if this sort of violence occurs, it's going to affect the administration's - the Obama administration's plan to cut troop numbers in half by the fall?

LAWRENCE: Every indication - they say that they're flexible and can move with conditions on the ground, but every indication is that they're actually moving out and its almost hard to reverse. Some of this troops and equipment are actually headed for Afghanistan. They can only stay at the invitation of the Iraqi government in any case, and no politician at the moment could make such an invitation. It's still a very anti-American mood in Iraq and we probably won't see a new government until those troops are gone in the 1st of September, when 45,000 U.S. troops will have left.

SIMON: So to try and understand the political and social environment there, Quil, no matter who might ultimately be responsible for this attack, a lot of people are going to accuse various groups in this time period?

LAWRENCE: Yes. People are already pointing fingers. And with every military action, everyone of these attacks - weve had a couple of car bomb attacks, some arrests of people who were candidates on one side or another, assassinations of people who are candidates from one side of the other, and many people are seeing this as a way to force the election results through violence and take advantage of the sort of power vacuum we have while they wait to see who the next prime minister's going to be.

SIMON: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Baghdad. Thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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