A gang of gunmen disguised in military-style uniforms and carrying forged arrest warrants killed 25 police Monday, then hoisted the battle flag of al-Qaida in a carefully planned early morning shooting spree in western Iraq, officials said.
The killings in Haditha highlight al-Qaida's success in regaining a foothold in an area they once dominated through police executions and murdering city officials.
"We consider this attack as a serious security breach and we believe that al-Qaida 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.
By going after police, the militants 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 city's proximity to the border, just 65 miles away, means it is vital territory to al-Qaida if they want to ramp up operations in Syria to help overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. Already, Sunni militants who revile Assad because he's a member of an offshoot religion of Shiism are crossing from Iraq into Syria.
A curfew was imposed on the town after the pre-dawn attack.
News channel Al Jazeera quoted a source as saying the attacks had exclusively targeted police personnel across several checkpoints. The death toll included two police colonels.
Police at the scene said three of the attackers were killed but the rest escaped. Fathi said only one insurgent's body has been identified. Such confusion is common in the immediate aftermath of an attack in Iraq.
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 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-Qaida in Iraq.
For many Iraqis, the city is a symbol of some of the worst atrocities during the war.
Reuters, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.
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