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Gunmen kill 8 in Baghdad bank robbery, police say

GUNMEN killed eight security guards and made off with nearly US$7 million during a brazen bank robbery yesterday in central Baghdad in the second such assault in a week. While overall violence is down in Iraq, ordinary crime has emerged as an increasing threat to the country's stability.

Police said the robberies appeared to be the work of militants seeking money for operations after their funding was severely curtailed in US-Iraqi military crackdowns.

The retaliatory sectarian violence that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war has declined dramatically over the past two years. But armed robberies targeting jewelry stores, currency exchanges and pawn shops appear to be on the rise.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said he had ordered an investigation and called for increased security measures for banks.

"There should be some warning system within banks, and the bank safe should not be easily opened," he said. "These gangs have shifted from kidnapping into bank robberies to finance terrorist operations."

Authorities were particularly alarmed that the two robberies this week occurred in the bustling commercial district of Karradah, a mainly Shiite area that houses many prominent people.

"This crime constitutes a challenge as the district is located in a well-protected area," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

The gunmen broke into the state-run Rafidain Bank at about 4 am, killing three on-duty guards and five others on the premises who were either on a break or asleep, according to Iraqi police. They seized 8 billion Iraqi Dinars (US$6.9 million), the Interior Ministry said.

It was not immediately known how many gunmen were involved or how the money was secured in the bank at the time of he robbery.

Iraqi and US officials blamed the attacks on militants trying to raise funds for operations, although they did not elaborate on the reason for that conclusion or which side they believed was responsible.

The US military and the Iraqi government have pressed neighboring states to crack down on the smuggling of money to al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents in the country. Iran also has been accused of funneling money and arms to Shiite militias in the wartorn country.

"While I cannot confirm that the attacks were terrorist related, it does fit past trends of terrorist groups in Iraq of financing their operations through crimes - like kidnappings for ransom, robberies and black marketeering," US Army Maj. David Shoupe, a military spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Insurgents in Afghanistan also are believed to have staged bank robberies, kidnappings for ransom and other criminal activities to raise funds.

Five people were killed Sunday when gunmen broke into the al-Nibal money exchange office in Karradah shortly before noon, killing three employees and two customers and wounding 12 others, including eight employees.

In April, gunmen armed with silenced weapons killed at least seven people during a daylight heist of jewelry stores in Baghdad. In the same month, gunmen used similar tactics, killing two, during the robbery of a currency exchange office in the southern city of Basra.

The banking industry has enjoyed a revival in Iraq with the decline in violence over the past two years.

Despite the security gains, attacks continue.

Two bombs hidden in plastic bags exploded in separate areas in mainly Shiite parts of Baghdad late yesterday, killing at least five people, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Also yesterday, Britain said it will withdraw its remaining forces from Iraq to Kuwait by the end of the month because the Iraqi parliament failed to pass a deal allowing them to stay to protect oil platforms and provide training.

Britain already has withdrawn its combat forces according to a previous agreement. The British Ministry of Defense said the new announcement related to between 100 and 150 mostly navy personnel left to train the Iraqi navy. US troops would stand in for the British while they were out of the country, according to the ministry.

An agreement reached with the Iraqi government would have let some British troops stay in Iraq to train after most had left their bases around the southern city of Basra.

The lingering presence has faced opposition, principally by followers of anti-US Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who stalled the ratification of the deal until lawmakers adjourned Monday for their summer recess.

British Embassy spokesman Jawwad Syed said yesterday it was a procedural delay and that the remaining British forces will pull back to Kuwait until the issue is resolved. The troops' existing mandate expires on July 31.

"We have general broad support for our agreement ... we're hopeful that when we have the next parliamentary session, we should achieve a ratification," Syed said.

Syed and Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said talks were under way to find an interim solution.

"The government considers it a benefit to have British forces for training purposes," al-Dabbagh said.

But al-Sadr's followers struck a hard-line.

"We will insist on blocking this agreement even after the end of the parliament's recess," Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal said. "We reject any foreign presence on our waters and land."

At the height of combat operations in the months after the US-led invasion, Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq. Washington still has about 130,000 troops in Iraq and has shifted units south as London ended its combat mission.

British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth said the British troops were likely to be out of Iraq until late September, when parliament resumes after Ramadan.


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