Baghdad: Gunmen wearing explosives belts under military uniforms took hostages at a local government headquarters in Saddam Hussein`s hometown, killing 15 of them execution-style before blowing themselves up in a fiery end to an hours-long siege, Iraqi officials said. In all, 45 people were killed.
The attackers set fire to the bodies of three slain councilmen at the Salahuddin provincial council headquarters in Tikrit, said the province`s media adviser, Mohammed al-Asi. Among the lawmakers was an official who was known for his tough stance against al-Qaida in Iraq, which some officials blamed for the attack. Another was an elderly politician who headed the council`s committee on religion.
"He was just an old man — he did nothing," al-Asi said in an interview, trying to keep from weeping. "Why did they shoot him and set fire to his poor body?"
Salahuddin Governor Ahmed Abdullah called the attack "a tragic incident carried out by ruthless terrorists."
Also among the dead was Iraqi journalist Sabah al-Bazi, a correspondent for Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel and a freelancer for CNN and Reuters, according to the three news outlets.
Officials said the standoff in Tikrit, located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, began around 1 p.m. when the attackers blew up a car outside the council headquarters to create a diversion before launching their raid.
Wearing military uniforms — including one with a high rank — the gunmen identified themselves as Iraqi soldiers at a security checkpoint outside the government compound but opened fire on guards when they were told they needed to be searched.
The provincial council meets at the headquarters every Tuesday, but a spokesman for the governor, Ali Abdul Rihman, said local lawmakers ended their discussion early because there was little on their agenda. As a result, he said, most of the lawmakers had already left the headquarters when the assault began.
"The gunmen were armed with grenades, and began their raid by firing at random at a reception room," Rihman said. "Then they opened fire inside."
The governor described a fierce shootout between at least eight gunmen, who overtook the council headquarters` second floor, and Iraqi security forces who surrounded the building. He said the attackers were hurling grenades at Iraqi forces.
Salahuddin Health Director Dr. Raied Ibrahim said the attackers killed 45 people and wounded 98 in the attack that lasted more than five hours.
Officials were quick to blame al-Qaida in Iraq for the siege, noting that executions and suicide bombers are hallmarks of the extremist group.
A senior intelligence official in Baghdad likened the attack to a horrifying hostage raid last fall on a Catholic church in Baghdad that left 68 dead and stunned the nation. An al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for that massacre on Oct. 31, which drove thousands of Iraq`s already dwindling Christian population from their homeland in fear.
Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein`s hometown, is mostly populated by Sunni Muslims and was a hotbed for insurgents linked to al-Qaida and anti-American extremists at the height of the Iraq war.
City policemen said U.S. troops were at the scene to assist Iraqi forces but a spokesman for the American military in Baghdad could not immediately verify that information.