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8 die in Baghdad bank heist

Iraqi officials say insurgents may be behind the robbery, in which nearly $7 million was stolen, and other thefts as a way to fund their activities.

July 29, 2009|Liz Sly and Usama Redha

BAGHDAD — Thieves killed eight security guards and made off with nearly $7 million in an overnight bank heist Tuesday that police officials say could have been the work of insurgents.

The deadly robbery came on the day U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates flew into Baghdad on an unannounced visit to get a first-hand look at conditions now that American combat troops have withdrawn from Iraq's cities.

Gates said he thought the transfer of authority to the Iraqis had gone smoothly.

"I think it's inevitable given the changes of circumstances that there would be the occasional problem," he said at a news conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim Mifarji.

"What I think is remarkable is that you have such a dramatic redeployment of American forces and a dramatic change of the rules of operation, and there have been so few problems along the way."

Iraqi police said the thieves used guns equipped with silencers to kill three guards outside a branch of the state-owned Rafidain Bank in east Baghdad's Karada neighborhood during the night. They then killed five guards who were sleeping inside the bank before making off with the cash.

The robbery was discovered in the morning by employees arriving for work. It calls into question the level of security on the streets of Baghdad now that Iraqi forces are in charge. Police said it appeared to have been a sophisticated operation in which the thieves used drills and blowtorches to break into the bank's safe.

Baghdad has had a spate of robberies that has given rise to suspicions that insurgents have embarked on a crime spree to finance their activities. Five people were killed Sunday and 12 wounded in a noontime shootout between robbers and guards at a popular money exchange, also in Karada, a mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood. Those thieves escaped, but police said it appeared that they hadn't taken any money.

The U.S. military said it was possible that insurgents were involved.

"I cannot confirm that the attacks were terrorist-related," said Army Maj. David Shoupe, spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad. "It does fit past trends of terrorist groups in Iraq financing their operations through criminal enterprise like kidnappings for ransom, robberies and black marketeering."

Iraqi security forces did not ask for U.S. assistance in either of the incidents, Shoupe said.

Gates' visit came amid reports of tensions between American troops and Iraqi forces seeking to interpret the terms of the security agreement governing their shifting relationship.

U.S. forces now may enter cities only with the permission of the Iraqis, which has given rise to confusion about what American troops can do in many areas.

Gates next plans a visit to the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, where heightened tensions between Kurds and Arabs have given rise to fears that full-scale conflict may erupt if disputes over territory are not resolved by the time all U.S. forces are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Iraq's electoral commission released official preliminary results from the weekend election held in the self-governing region, showing that the decades-old dominance of the two ruling parties has been significantly eroded. The ruling alliance of the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, won 56% of the vote, with 24.3% going to the new Change slate.

Another opposition group, Services and Reform, won 13.4%.

KDP leader Massoud Barzani, the region's president, easily won reelection with 68.8% of the vote.

But the result showed that the days when the two ruling parties could count on the support of more than 90% of the electorate are gone, and that in the future they could face even bigger challenges to their grip on power.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces raided a camp belonging to an exiled Iranian opposition group that has been a thorn in the side of the nation's relationship with its eastern neighbor since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Mujahedin Khalq said security forces killed four people during the raid on Camp Ashraf in Diyala province, when the Iraqis moved into the camp supposedly to open a police station there.

Washington has labeled the Mujahedin Khalq a terrorist organization, but the U.S. had nonetheless offered protection to its 3,500 or so members living at the camp until Iraqi forces assumed responsibility for security there this year.

Iran has been pressuring Iraq to close the camp, but the U.S. has argued against the use of force to evict residents, and had been trying to broker a solution with the United Nations to find asylum for camp dwellers in third countries.

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liz.sly@latimes.com

Special correspondent Asso Ahmed in Sulaymaniya, Iraq, contributed to this report.

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