Assailants waving the battle flag of al-Qaida gunned down 25 policemen Monday in a brazen and well-orchestrated challenge to government control over a strategic town fraught with Iraq war symbolism.
The attack replicated tactics used by Sunni insurgents during the war and appeared aimed at reasserting al-Qaida's grip now that the Iraqis can no longer rely on American help.
The attackers drove through the town of Haditha claiming to be government officials and methodically executed guards and commanders. After half an hour they escaped into the desert, leaving a terrified populace demanding protection. Local authorities imposed a curfew and deployed troops.
Mohammed Owda al-Kubaisi, a relative of one of the slain policemen, spoke of his four children, "now orphans because their father was assassinated by the cold blood of insurgency while our government keeps watching and denouncing."
The choice of target was significant in several ways.
Haditha is just 65 miles (105 kilometers) from the border with Syria, where rebels fighting the regime are allegedly gaining recruits from Iraq. During the Iraq war the town of 85,000 was a critical pawn in the battle, and was overrun and held by al-Qaida insurgents for months until U.S. forces ousted them. It was also the home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, as well as the scene of a U.S. massacre of civilians.
Iraqi officials described Monday's attack as a systematic plot to kill policemen. The attackers came at 2 a.m. in cars painted as Iraqi Interior Ministry vehicles and brandished false arrest warrants for city police officials. At the first checkpoint they confiscated cell phones and shot nine guards, said Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Iraq's western Anbar province, where Haditha is located.
The convoy then stopped at the homes of two Haditha police commanders, including the colonel who served as the city's SWAT team leader. They were killed less than a quarter of a mile (400 meters) away, Fathi said.
He said the attackers had false arrest warrants for 15 police officials. At a checkpoint near the main market a gun battle broke out, with the gang raising the al-Qaida flag, according to a police lieutenant in Haditha who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Six policemen were killed in that skirmish, and another eight were killed as security forces chased the gang through the city, Fathi said.
The police lieutenant said most of the gang escaped north, but one of the insurgents' cars was shot up and found to contain an al-Qaida flag, black with a Quranic inscription, and al-Qaida propaganda. Fathi said at least one of the insurgents was killed. Local police said three were killed.
The attack exposed the vulnerability of the Iraqi public who had already lost tens of thousands of lives and now, with the Americans gone, faces a fresh wave of bombings and assassinations with only a reconstituted and relatively untested Iraqi security force for protection.
Haditha people have little faith in the protections promised by the government in Baghdad, 220 kilometers (140 miles) to the southeast.
Mohammed Hussein said his cousin, one of Monday's victims, joined the police force three years ago to serve his country and to feed his family. "We demand the government launch an immediate investigation," he said. "This is very painful."
"We consider this attack as a serious security breach and we believe that al-Qaida or groups linked to it are behind this," Fathi said. The Haditha lieutenant described Monday's killing spree as "the first bold attack" on the city in years.
Attacks by al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq as well as Yemen show a resilience that has survived the weakening of the central leadership by U.S. drone attacks on its Pakistan bases and the deaths of Osama bin Laden and other key figures.
Al-Qaida in Iraq reached the height of its strength during the 2005-2007 insurgency against U.S. troops. The Iraqi wing of the terror network still launches deadly attacks every few weeks, seeking to undermine the government and local security forces.
In Africa, terror groups affiliated with al-Qaida have managed to pull off devastating bombings from Nigeria to Kenya and Somalia over the last year _ most of them targeting local populations and security forces.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, and Alan Clendenning in Madrid, contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/larajakesAP