BAGHDAD (AP) — Militants flew an al-Qaida flag over a Baghdad neighborhood Thursday after killing 16 security officials and burning some of their bodies in a brazen afternoon attack that served as a grim reminder of continued insurgent strength in Iraq’s capital.
It was the bloodiest attack in a day that included the deaths of 23 Iraqi soldiers, policemen and other security forces across the country who were targeted by shootings and roadside bombs.
The mayhem serves as a stark warning that insurgents are trying to make a comeback three months after their two top leaders were killed in an airstrike on their safehouse, and as the U.S. military presence decreases day by day.
The complex attack began when militants struck a checkpoint in the largely Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah, once a stronghold of insurgents that in recent years has become more peaceful. Then the militants set it on fire, burning several of the soldiers’ bodies, according to an army officer who was on patrol in the neighborhood. Minutes later, attackers detonated three roadside bombs nearby.
Hospital, police and military officials all confirmed the death toll.
A large pool of blood and what appeared to be char marks could be seen on the ground near an Iraqi army truck. Authorities immediately sealed off the area. Police and army officials said between 16 and 20 assailants took part in the highly orchestrated attack; all appeared to have escaped.
A day before the Azamiyah attack, Vice President Joe Biden predicted there would not be an extreme outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq as all but 50,000 U.S. forces leave the country at the end of August. He said the American troops left behind would be more than enough to help Iraqi forces maintain security.
“I can’t guarantee anything, but I’m willing to bet everything that there will be no such explosion,” Biden said on NBC’s “Today” show. He was speaking from Ft. Drum in upstate New York where he and his wife were welcoming troops home.
Still, the Obama administration is keeping a wary eye on Iraq’s security. White House officials said Biden is sending two of his top national security advisers to Baghdad this weekend to help push along Iraq’s stalled political process in a sign of impatience and concern that sectarian tensions could escalate as the Americans forces withdraw.
It has been more than four months since Iraq’s March 7 election, with little indication that a government can be formed before the Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins in mid-August and brings a halt to business in much of the Middle East.
As politicians bicker, Iraqis point to such violent attacks as Thursday’s as a clear indication that the terror groups are trying to use the political instability to regroup.
Officials in Azamiyah said the provocative flag-planting and bold attack are part of an attempt by the terror group to once again infiltrate the Sunni neighborhood.
“Al-Qaida is trying their best to return to Iraq or to Azamiyah because they have no existence here now,” said a member of the Azamiyah provincial council, Haitham al-Azami. “Al-Qaida, by this act intends to pretend that they have an existence and to show their muscles.”
The daylight attack was the boldest move by militants since their commando-style assault on the central bank in June that left 26 people dead during morning rush hour. Suicide bombings, roadside bombs and nighttime assassinations have tended to be their pattern of violence.
The Azamiyah blast was the deadliest of a series of attacks around the country, aiming to kill and maim members of Iraq’s security forces who are increasingly taking over security from Americans.
Earlier, a suicide bomber drove a minibus into the main gate of an Iraqi army base near Saddam Hussein’s hometown north of Baghdad, killing four soldiers, said police and hospital officials.
In the western city of Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, two roadside bombs targeting Iraqi army patrols killed two soldiers, police and hospital officials in the city said.
In the northern city of Mosul, a bomb attached to a police vehicle killed one policeman and injured two others, a police official said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The attacks underline the fact that militant groups can still strike with lethal force across Iraq, despite an improvement in the security situation over the last three years.
Also Thursday, an al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for a bombing earlier this week that targeted the Baghdad offices of a pan-Arab television station killing six people, describing it as a victory against a “corrupt channel.”
The Arabic-language news channel Al-Arabiya is one of the most popular in the Middle East but is perceived by insurgents as being pro-Western.
“We take responsibility for targeting this corrupt channel, and we will not hesitate to hit any media office and chase its staffers if they insist on being a tool of war against almighty God and his prophet,” the announcement said.
Associated Press Writers Mazin Yahya, Lara Jakes and Barbara Surk in Baghdad contributed to this report.