BAGHDAD: Qaeda fighters killed five policemen at a Baghdad checkpoint on Tuesday and planted the black flag of the terror network’s front group in Iraq, an interior ministry official said.
The flag-planting was the second such move in less than a week and comes as concerns mount that Iraq’s security may be deteriorating after the government said more people died in violence in July than in any month since May 2008.
"Around 5:30 am (0230 GMT), men with silencer pistols shot dead five policemen at a checkpoint in Mansur neighborhood before planting the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq," the ministry official said.
The shootings followed a brazen series of attacks in the Iraqi capital on Thursday that killed 16 people, after which insurgents also planted the Al-Qaeda, front group’s black flag.
Those attacks, which occurred within 15 minutes of each other, began with the killing of three soldiers. The fighters then burned their bodes and planted the flag.
A similar attack took place last Thursday in Baghdad’s Sunni Azamiyah district, a former Al-Qaeda stronghold, where suspected militants from the terror network stormed a checkpoint, killing 16 members of the security forces and briefly planting their banner nearby before fleeing.
Tuesday’s violence comes after Iraqi figures compiled by the ministries of health, interior and defense showed 535 people were killed by violence in July, the highest monthly figure in more than two years.
The US military, however, has disputed those figures, saying they were "grossly overstated."
US and Iraqi officials have warned of the dangers of an upsurge in violence if negotiations on forming a new government drag on, giving insurgent groups an opportunity to further destabilize the country.
The attacks in Azamiyah and Mansur were likely to raise concerns that militants are successfully taking advantage of the enduring political vacuum nearly five months after Iraq’s parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner.
Nearly five months since the March 7 general election which gave no single bloc an overall parliamentary majority, the two lists which won the most seats are still bickering over who should be the next prime minister.
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.