Published: May 25, 2010 5:23 PM EDT
Updated: May 25, 2010 2:24 PM EDT

BAGHDAD (AP) - Masked assailants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns shot up a jewelry market in Baghdad Tuesday, killing 15 people before they fled with a large quantity of gold in an attack authorities swiftly blamed on a cash-strapped al-Qaida in Iraq.

The attack was the latest in a violent crime wave in Iraq that has swelled over the past year as violence has dramatically ebbed. Authorities have also blamed similar robberies in the past on battle-hardened former insurgents unable to find legitimate work. The area of the attack in the southwestern neighborhood of Baiyaa was later sealed off by security forces.

A dead body that police and witnesses said belonged to one of the assailants was covered with a cloth on the bloodstained sidewalk amid the shattered glass of shop windows. Mohammed Elaiwi Nassir, a witness who owns a real estate office nearby, said the attackers were heavily armed, including with RPGs, and that security forces were slow to respond.

He told The Associated Press the gunmen arrived around 11:20 a.m. in five or six cars, one of them a minibus. Each vehicle had three masked gunmen inside, some armed with RPGs and others with machine-guns and pistols fitted with silencers.

"They started shooting into the air to clear the street and also threw percussion grenades," said the 45-year-old Nassir. "Then they started shooting directly at the gold shops showcases from outside and scooping up gold in their hands," he added. "The attack lasted about 15 minutes during which only one policeman showed up, but he was shot in his shoulder and leg by the attackers.

After thirty minutes, the security forces came," said Nassir. Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad's chief military spokesman, and another security official said the methods and means used, such as silencers, and the accuracy and organization of the operation, point to al-Qaida.

"We expect that al-Qaida is behind this operation because recently, al-Qaida has been suffering form fund shortages and we have information that al-Qaida is planning robberies. The fingerprints of al-Qaida are obvious in today's heist," he told The Associated Press.

However, Iraqi authorities are often quick to blame violence on al-Qaida in Iraq, even before their investigations are concluded or begun. The jewelry shops in Baiyaa are clustered in two buildings at one end of a busy market street with many other types of stores. There are normally police patrolling the market area, but it was not immediately clear whether the gold shops had any additional security in place at the time of the attack.

Police said the gunmen had covered their faces with traditional Arab headscarves. They first set off a roadside bomb near the shops, killing four bystanders and wounding three, city police officials said. Then they opened fire on 12 shops, killing nine gold shop owners or their workers and two bystanders. A hospital official confirmed the number of casualties.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. In past robberies, jewelry stores have been frequent targets, along with homes, cars, currency exchanges, pawn shops and banks have also been hit. But Tuesday's attack was one of the deadliest in the upswing.

Al-Moussawi said several weeks ago, security forces foiled an attempt to rob a private bank in the Mansour neighborhood of western Baghdad and he said al-Qaida was behind it. He said some other heists were carried out by al-Qaida, according to the confessions of people involved, including robberies of currency exchange shops in eastern Baghdad. But other robberies were carried out by criminal gangs, he said.

Another security official also said al-Qaida in Iraq is strapped for cash and could have organized Tuesday's heist, though it was too early to confirm it. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

There are few statistics tracking the number and kinds of crimes, in part because the government remains focused on the bombings and other insurgent attacks that continue throughout Iraq. But crime has added to the woes of ordinary Iraqis, already plagued by years of war and a lack of electricity and other services. In April last year, Iraq created a military task force to battle gangland-style crime after gunmen killed at least seven people during a daylight heist of jewelry stores.

In one of the most sensational crimes in recent years last July, several members of Iraq's presidential guards - who protect senior officials - broke into the state-run Rafidain Bank and stole about 5.6 billion Iraqi dinars, or $4.8 million. They tied up eight guards at the bank in central Baghdad and shot each one execution-style. In October, at least eight people were killed during a shootout following the robbery of two jewelry stores in Baghdad. The robbers stole gold and money.

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