BAGHDAD — A gang of gunmen disguised in military-style uniforms and carrying forged arrest warrants killed 25 police officers Monday, then hoisted the battle flag of al-Qaeda in a carefully planned early morning attack in western Iraq, officials said.
The killings in Haditha highlight the success of al-Qaeda-linked militants in regaining a foothold in an area they once dominated through police executions and the killings of city officials.
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, 65 miles away, means it is vital territory for the militants if they want to ramp up operations in Syria to help overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Already, Sunni fighters who revile Assad because he belongs to an offshoot religion of Shiism are crossing into Syria.
Iraqi officials described a systematic plot to kill police in Haditha, 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, with attackers disguising themselves in military garb and driving cars painted to look like Interior Ministry vehicles.
Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Iraq’s western Anbar province, where Haditha is located, said the gunmen claimed they were military officials with arrest warrants for city police officers. 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 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 then shot both less than a quarter-mile away, he said.
Fathi said the gang had false arrest warrants for 15 police officials in Haditha. As the convoy moved through the city, the militants were stopped at another checkpoint near the main market. A fierce gun battle 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 in shootings as security forces chased the gang through the city, Fathi said. Two more policemen were killed at a checkpoint on Haditha’s outskirts, he said.
AP writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.