Militants kill 5 Iraqi soldiers at Baghdad checkpoint, plant al-Qaida flag

BAGHDAD (AP) — Suspected al-Qaida militants killed 5 Iraqi soldiers in a brazen dawn attack Tuesday at a western Baghdad checkpoint and planted the terror group's black banner before fleeing the scene, officials said.

The attackers arrived in three cars and used pistols fitted with silencers in the assault in the mainly Sunni Mansour district, police and hospital officials said. The assailants, according to the officials, then planted the al-Qaida banner on a pole next to the checkpoint.

It was the second time in a week that al-Qaida's flag has appeared at the scene of an attack. On Thursday, in Baghdad's Sunni Azamiyah district — a former al-Qaida stronghold — suspected al-Qaida militants stormed a checkpoint, killed 16 members of the security forces and briefly planted their banner nearby before fleeing.

Such attacks are likely to raise concerns that insurgents are successfully taking advantage of the enduring political vacuum nearly five months after Iraq's parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner. Politicians are still bickering over the formation of a new government, with the main hurdle being who should become the next prime minister.

Following Tuesday's attack in Mansour, security forces sealed off the area and searched for the attackers. They carried out extensive car searches and identity checks on passengers as well as pedestrians in the area, according to the officials.

Also Tuesday, an Iraqi soldier and a policeman were killed and nine people were wounded in other attacks across Baghdad.

Violence levels have significantly dropped in Iraq since 2008 but attacks still occur daily, particularly in Baghdad, where al-Qaida appears determined to show it is far from being a spent force despite the killing and capture of hundreds of its members and leaders by Iraqi and U.S. forces.

Incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been struggling to hold on to his post, told state television late Monday that he was prepared to "suspend" his candidacy for a second, four-year term in office, but that doing so would not bring about a breakthrough.

Some of his Shiite allies have publicly called on al-Maliki to step aside, while loyal supporters in his State of Law coalition are sticking by his candidacy.

Al-Maliki's comments came just hours after President Barack Obama promised again to remove all but 50,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the month, wrapping up the combat mission of the U.S. military in Iraq. The last American soldier is due to leave Iraq by the end of next year.

Appearing at times angry when lashing out at his critics, al-Maliki said he was a political target for nay-sayers because he refuses to sugarcoat Iraq's problems.

"I do not sweet talk," he said in the hour-long interview, taped earlier. "They say they want a weak prime minister. The country is facing a lot of problems and if the prime minister is not strong, then the country will crumble, and sectarianism and warlords will return."

"I do not understand the theory of a weak prime minister who will be a prisoner in the hands of one group or another," said al-Maliki, who cites the improved security as the biggest feat of his tenure.

According to police officials, a roadside bomb targeting an army patrol in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City killed one soldier and wounded seven — four soldiers and three bystanders.

In the capital's eastern Ghadir district, a traffic policeman was killed when a bomb attached to his motorbike went off. A similar bomb attached to the car of a police major went off in Hurriyah neighborhood, seriously wounding him. And in the nearby Ghazaliyah neighborhood, gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on a police checkpoint, wounding one policeman, police officials said.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.

The use of "sticky" bombs by insurgents has spread in recent months in attacks on police and government officials as well as hits on local leaders of a government-backed Sunni militia. The devices have also been used by rival criminal gangs and hit men.