Gunmen wearing scarves to hide their faces laid siege to a shopping district in southwestern Baghdad just before noon Tuesday, killing at least 14 people in a robbery of several gold shops, Iraqi authorities said.
In the hunt for the attackers, investigators held the area's security officials for questioning and sealed off much of Bayaa, a commercial hub that's lost shoppers in recent years after vicious sectarian cleansing turned it into a predominantly Shiite Muslim enclave. One of the assailants was killed in a gun battle with police; two others were detained.
The brazen midday attack was the latest sign of insecurity as Iraq's top leaders focus on forming a new government. On Monday night, a newly elected parliament member, Bashar al-Ageidi, was assassinated in his volatile hometown of Mosul, in northern Iraq. A series of deadly bombings and attacks since the March 7 parliamentary elections has sown fears of a security void during the government's transitional period.
About 17 heavily armed assailants spilled out of several cars that pulled up to a cluster of shops Tuesday on Bayaa's busy Street 20, according to the Iraqi security command in Baghdad. The gunmen shot into the air and threw percussion grenades, whose loud booms sent passers-by scrambling for safety, which cleared space for the attackers to enter jewelry shops and kill anyone inside before stuffing bags full of gold, authorities said.
A nearby four-man police patrol responded to the sound of the grenades and got into a shootout with the attackers. All four officers were wounded, one attacker was killed and the other robbers fled with the loot, according to the Baghdad command center.
RPGs for a jewel heist?
Local news reports and some policemen said the attackers were armed not only with standard weapons such as assault rifles and pistols fitted with silencers, but also with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and belt-fed machine guns.
An interviewer on the Iraqiya TV channel asked Baghdad security spokesman Qassim Atta the question that was on everyone's mind Tuesday afternoon: "How did they manage to stage this operation at midday and get through all these checkpoints and security procedures in Baghdad?"
Atta replied that an investigation was under way to determine how the robbers skirted the many checkpoints. He added that Iraqi forces had responded promptly and managed to arrest two suspects and recover some of the stolen goods.
"You can't imagine how big this issue is. It's a big failure that gunmen managed to stage a major raid at midday in central Baghdad," said a senior Interior Ministry official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't allowed to make public comments.
In recent weeks, politicians and pundits had warned that militant groups are strapped for cash and would attack gold merchants. Iraqi jewelers are frequent targets for kidnappings, robberies and extortion. In March, two goldsmiths were injured in a robbery in Kirkuk. Last year, at least 17 gold merchants were killed in attacks in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, according to McClatchy's violence log.
"It's expected that al Qaida (in Iraq) will resort to armed robbery, targeting banks and gold shops to fund its terrorist activities," Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, a U.S.-allied Sunni Muslim tribal leader, told the local newspaper Azzaman last week.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Tuesday's operation.
McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article.