By SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — 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 began with an attack on a suburban checkpoint and the kidnapping of two police commanders from their homes in the western Iraqi city of Haditha around 2 a.m. It ended with the gang disappearing into the desert in this latest bloody strike against Iraq's security forces.
At least one of the attackers was killed in a raid that lasted about a half-hour.
"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.
Iraqi officials described a systematic plot to kill police in Haditha, 140 miles (220 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, with attackers disguising themselves in military uniforms and driving cars painted to look like Iraqi interior ministry vehicles.
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, then shot both less than a quarter-mile (400 meters) away, Fathi said.
Fathi said the gang had false arrest warrants for 15 police officials in Haditha. As their convoy moved through the city, they were stopped at another checkpoint near the city's main market. A fierce gun battle broke out, with the gang raising the black flag of al-Qaida in a show of defiance. Six policemen were killed in that skirmish, and another six were killed in shootings as security forces chased the gang through the city, Fathi said.
Most of the gang escaped, fleeing north into a desert area in bordering Ninevah province known as Jazeera, according to a police lieutenant in Haditha. On the way out, Fathi said, another two policemen were killed at a checkpoint on Haditha's outskirts.
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 was the headquarters for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, within a year of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
For many Iraqis, the city became a symbol of U.S. abuses during the American military occupation after the 2005 killing of 24 people, including unarmed women and children, by a squad of Marines.
The Haditha lieutenant said the Jazeera desert is being used as al-Qaida's newest headquarters, partly because of the difficulty faced by police forces in reaching into the region.
The area is also a few hours from the Syrian border, which Iraqi intelligence officials say weapons smugglers and fighters have secretly crossing to fight alongside local opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The police lieutenant spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Insurgent groups have been hammering Iraqi security forces with attacks, seeking to undermine the public's confidence in the ability of their policemen and soldiers to protect everyday citizens. The violence also discourages people from joining or helping the security forces, and the impersonation of military personnel by insurgents makes citizens distrustful of anyone wearing a uniform.
Monday's strike was the third in as many weeks that showed evidence of careful planning by an insurgency bent on proving their might.
On Feb. 23, widespread shootings and bombing across Iraq killed 55 and wounded more than 200 in attacks for which al-Qaida immediately claimed responsibility. Two days earlier, a suicide bomber detonated his car as a group of police recruits left their academy in Baghdad, killing 20.