Gunmen Kill 24 in Overnight Raid on Iraqi Village

BAGHDAD - Gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms raided homes in a Sunni village south of Baghdad, killing at least 24 people, including five women, execution-style, officials said Saturday.

At least seven people were found alive, bound with handcuffs, said Baghdad's security spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi. In the hours after Friday night's shootings, Iraqi officials cordoned off the area to search for suspects and helicopters swarmed overhead.

"The area has many orchards and streams, so it is difficult to secure, but we are investigating," al-Moussawi told The Associated Press. He said the killings bear "an obvious Al Qaeda hallmark."

Many of the dead were members of local Sahwa, or Awakening Councils -- one of several names for the Sunni fighters who changed the course of the war when they revolted against Al Qaeda in Iraq and joined the Americans in late 2006 and 2007, officials said. The fighters also are also known as Sons of Iraq.

The victims were handcuffed and shot, said a police official who asked that his name not be published because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

Mustafa Kamel, a Sahwa leader south of Baghdad, said the attack happened late Friday in a village in the Arab Jabour area, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Arab Jabour is a collection of industrial zones, villages and palm and citrus groves in the Sunni belt around Baghdad's southern doorstep.

An official at Iraq's Interior Ministry confirmed the attack and said the victims were 20 men and five women and that the attackers were in military uniform.

He did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Al-Moussawi said 24 people were confirmed dead, although other officials put the toll at 25.

Many of the Sons of Iraq were former insurgents who later teamed up with the Americans against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The move, known as the Awakening, was credited -- along with the surge of tens of thousands of U.S. troops -- in helping quell the violence.

But the question of what to do with these nearly 100,000 people in the long-term remains. The U.S. handed over control last year of the Awakening Councils to Iraq, which pays their roughly $300 monthly salaries.

The violence comes as Iraq's major political blocs scramble to get enough parliamentary support to form a government after results from the March 7 election gave no single group enough seats to govern alone. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's cross-sectarian bloc tapped into heavy Sunni support to come in just two seats ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's mainly Shiite list.

Many fear drawn-out political negotiations to form a government could spill over into violence and complicate American efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months.