The soldiers had changed into their off—duty clothing and were driving off in a sport—utility vehicle when the attackers blocked off the road and opened fire with machine guns just outside the northern city of Mosul.

Gunmen ambushed seven Iraqi soldiers as they were leaving work on Saturday in a former al—Qaeda stronghold, killing them and fleeing before they could be captured, authorities said.

The soldiers had changed into their off—duty clothing and were driving off in a sport—utility vehicle when the attackers blocked off the road and opened fire with machine guns just outside the northern city of Mosul.

Two policemen and an Iraqi army official said the gunmen sped away on a dirt road to avoid driving by watchtowers manned by security forces.

Army soldiers quickly swarmed the attack area and nearby villages to search for the shooters, the officials said.

All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Mosul is a former haven for al—Qaiea insurgents and Iraq’s third—largest city, located 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad. It has long been a gateway for extremists who smuggle in weapons, funding and fighters from neighbouring Syria and head south to Baghdad on one of Iraq’s major highways.

Militants have been trying to regain strength in the city after losing it to American and Iraqi forces in fierce clashes at the height of the insurgency years ago. In particular, extremists have targeted Iraqi forces, attempting to exploit security gaps and highlight continuing instability as U.S. forces prepare to leave the country by the end of the year.

More In: International | News