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Al Qaida raiders slaughter police

A gang of gunmen disguised in military uniforms killed 25 police, then hoisted the battle flag of al Qaida in a well-organised attack in the Iraqi city of Haditha.

The killings highlight al Qaida's success in regaining a foothold in an area they once dominated through police executions and murdering city officials.

By going after police, the militants further alienate Baghdad's protections over the desert city that sits closer to the Syrian border than the Iraqi capital, in part by intimidating 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 Bashar Assad. Already, Sunni militants who revile Assad because he is a member of an offshoot religion of Shiism are crossing from Iraq into Syria.

The killings carried out by al Qaida demonstrated a high degree of co-ordination, 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 around 2am in Haditha and ended with the gang disappearing into the desert a half hour later.

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 invasion, Haditha was the headquarters for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now dead former leader of al Qaida in Iraq.

For many Iraqis, the city is a symbol of some of the worst atrocities during the war.

The mayor of Haditha and his son were executed in July 2003. The next year, after US forces pulled back their protections, insurgents executed dozens of local policemen in a soccer stadium. US troops returned to Haditha with force in 2005, but at least 20 Marines and an interpreter were killed in separate attacks.

But it was a November 2005 bombing that touched off an attack that still has people in Haditha seething.

A Marine convoy hit a roadside bomb in Haditha that day, killing three US troops. Incensed, the surviving Marines shot five men by a car at the scene and stormed several nearby houses, where they cleared rooms with grenades and gunfire. Twenty-four Iraqis were killed, including unarmed women and children. Only one Marine was convicted, although he was spared prison time.

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