- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2012

BAGHDAD — A gang of gunmen wearing military-style uniforms and carrying forged arrest warrants killed 25 police Monday, then hoisted the battle flag of al Qaeda in a carefully planned early morning shooting spree in western Iraq, officials said.

The killings in Haditha highlight al Qaeda‘s success in regaining a foothold in an area it once dominated through executing police and murdering city officials.

By going after police, the terrorists demonstrate to the residents of Haditha, a desert city closer to the Syrian border than to Baghdad, how isolated they are from the central government’s protection and intimidate those who want to join the security forces.

The killings Monday morning demonstrated a high degree of coordination, knowledge of their targets and a boldness that indicated little fear of the local security forces’ ability to fight back.

The violence began with an attack on a suburban checkpoint at about 2 a.m. in Haditha and ended with the gang disappearing into the desert a half-hour later.

“We consider this attack as a serious security breach, and we believe that al Qaeda or groups linked to it are behind this,” said Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Iraq‘s western Anbar province where Haditha is located.

Iraqi officials described a systematic plot to kill police in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, with attackers disguising themselves in military uniforms and driving cars painted to look like Iraqi Interior Ministry vehicles.

Mr. Fathi said the gang claimed they were military officials with arrest warrants for city police. They were stopped at a checkpoint outside Haditha, where they took away the guards’ mobile phones before shooting nine of them, he said.

The gang’s convoy, described by one Haditha police lieutenant as stretching 13 cars long, then stopped at the homes of two Haditha police commanders, including the colonel who served as the city’s SWAT team leader. Brandishing the fake arrest warrants, the gunmen forced the commanders into the convoy and shot both less than a quarter-mile away, Mr. Fathi said.

The gang had false arrest warrants for 15 police officials in Haditha, he added. As their convoy moved through the city, they were stopped at another checkpoint near the main market.

A fierce gunbattle broke out, with the gang raising the black flag of al Qaeda in a show of defiance.

Six policemen were killed in that skirmish, and another six were killed as security forces chased the gang through the city, Mr. Fathi said.

Most of the gang escaped, fleeing north into a desert area in bordering Nineveh province known as Jazeera, according to a police lieutenant in Haditha. On their way out, they killed another two policemen at a checkpoint on Haditha‘s outskirts, Mr. Fathi said.

Police at the scene said three of the attackers were killed.

Haditha is a former Sunni insurgent stronghold of about 85,000 people in a valley where the Euphrates River runs through the desert. It is halfway between Baghdad and the border town of Al-Qaim, which for years was a way station for insurgents coming into Iraq from Syria.

Within a year of the 2003 U.S. invasion, Haditha was the headquarters for Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

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