Iraq gunmen kill at least 24 civilians at checkpoint

 

Gunmen in Iraq dragged 24 people, mostly students, from vehicles and shot them dead, police said, as violence raged across the country today.

Iraqi leaders appeared deadlocked on naming new interior and defence ministers seen as critical to restoring stability in a country bloodied by relentless insurgent and sectarian killings.

Police said gunmen manning a makeshift checkpoint near Udhaim stopped vehicles approaching the small town 120 km (80 miles) north of Baghdad and killed passengers.

"(They) dragged them one by one from their cars and executed them," said a police official.

The victims included students on their way to write end of term exams, children and elderly men, said another senior police official in Diyala province, scene of frequent attacks by insurgents waging a campaign of bombings and shootings to topple the US-backed, Shia-led government.

Some tried to flee but were gunned down, another police source said. Photographs showed six men shot in the chest, including one old man and five young men. It was unclear whether the victims were high school or university students.

In Iraq's south, a Sunni religious group accused security forces in the Shia-run city of Basra of killing 12 unarmed worshippers in a mosque early today, but police said they had returned fire and shot dead nine terrorists.

The incident came just hours after a car bomb killed 28 people in Basra, challenging a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to crack down on criminal gangs and Shia factions whose feuding threatens oil exports.

It was among the worst violence Iraq's second city has seen since US-forced invaded to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Communal violence has mounted throughout Iraq since the February bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in the city of Samarra, touching off a wave of revenge killings that sparked fears of civil war.

The United States, which has 130,000 troops in Iraq, hopes Maliki's broad coalition of majority Shia and minority Sunnis and Kurds will be able to defuse the violence.