BAGHDAD — Dozens of gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms killed a prominent Sunni Arab tribal leader and three of his sons in their beds early Wednesday in Baghdad, witnesses and government officials said.
The predawn slayings underscore the perilous security situation as the country heads toward its third national vote in less than a year. Unsolved killings and the discovery of bound, mutilated bodies have become commonplace as speculation grows that at least some of the killers are operating from inside the Iraqi security forces.
Witnesses and relatives say Sheik Kadhim Sarhid Hemaiyem was asleep just before 4 a.m. when his home in the middle-class Hurriya neighborhood was surrounded by gunmen in as many as 10 SUVs and pickup trucks.
"They surrounded the house from all directions, keeping a few cars on the main road for protection," said Abdel Sattar Jabbar, a relative.
Thirty to 35 gunmen stormed the house, Jabbar said, and killed Hemaiyem, 70; his three sons Amir, 35, Waseem, 21 and Allawi, 19; and his son-in-law, identified only as Ali.
"There weren't any confrontations at all," Jabbar said. "Then they immediately dispersed, leaving only the dead bodies behind."
Hemaiyem was leader of the Batta clan of Iraq's powerful Dulaimi tribe, and a distant fellow tribesman of Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi. The Dulaimi name is one of a few tribal affiliations that are synonymous with Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, closely linked with the regime of former President Saddam Hussein and to the insurgency.
But even police officials could only speculate about whether the killings were sectarian, tribal or connected to the Dec. 15 parliamentary poll, in which Hemaiyem's brother is a candidate.
"This is probably part of tribal revenge or other problems, or it could have political aims as to start sedition among the Iraqi people, especially now that we are few weeks away from the elections," said an officer at the Hurriya police department identified as Brig. Gen. Hammoudi. "I would not be surprised that terrorists have a hand in this."
Family members of the victims, however, point to Iraq's security forces. The killers drove trucks and wore uniforms of the Iraqi army, a common feature in the dozens of mysterious killings and abductions taking place each week in Iraq.
Government officials often respond that police and army uniforms are easily acquired on the black market, and accuse insurgents of trying to tarnish the government's reputation.
But Abdel Moneim Sarhid Hemaiyem, the sheik's brother, said it was unlikely that a heavily armed 10-vehicle convoy of insurgents could easily pass through the dozens of late-night checkpoints that dot the capital without some form of official license.
"They attacked us at 4 a.m. during the curfew, so they had to be from authority," Hemaiyem said as he waited at the Baghdad morgue to receive the bodies of his relatives. "I want to ask the ministers of defense and interior ... why are they killing us?"
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army announced the death of an American soldier Wednesday in central Baghdad from a gunshot wound. The name of the soldier is being withheld pending notification of family. More than 2,100 U.S. military personnel have been killed since the invasion in March 2003.