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Gunmen in Iraq kill 27 in brazen attacks on security checkpoints

Gunmen disguised as police raided checkpoints and homes in western Iraq on Monday, killing at least 27 members of the security forces, police said, in an attack the authorities said bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.

Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Anbar province, said the attack bore the "fingerprints of al-Qaeda."

The brazen attacks in what was once Iraq's most violent province raises concern that Iraq's branch of al-Qaeda may regain a foothold in Anbar after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December.

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Anbar was almost entirely under control of al-Qaeda during the height of Iraq's insurgency from 2005-07, when the militants were defeated by local tribesmen and U.S. forces.

The police source, who had been ferrying victims to the hospital morgue, said gunmen dressed in uniforms of the security forces had driven from checkpoint to checkpoint slaughtering security forces in Haditha, a town 190 kilometres northwest of Baghdad.

"The gunmen used security vehicles and from 2:00 a.m. until 3:30 a.m. they carried out attacks on checkpoints in central Haditha and the nearby town of Barwana," the police source, who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters in Fallujah.

Mr. Fathi, the governor's spokesman, said the attackers arrived at checkpoints with fake arrest warrants, confiscated the mobile phones of the police guards and executed them.

The 27 dead included a lieutenant colonel and a captain who were dragged out of their homes in Haditha and killed, the police source said. A curfew was imposed on the town and its exits were sealed off.

One gunman was killed in the attacks, the source said. Three policemen survived the attacks with wounds and were being treated at Haditha hospital.

A medical source at Hadita hospital confirmed the hospital had received 27 bodies of slain victims and was treating three wounded.

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Mr. Fathi said the attackers may have intended to derail a summit of Arab leaders set for later this month. Iraq is due to host a summit of the Arab League, its first since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and its leaders have been at pains to say security is under control.

Al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups oppose the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and say they will continue to fight despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces last year.

They have continued to strike mainly against the security forces. Co-ordinated early morning attacks that mainly targeted police in Shiite areas killed at least 60 people across the country on Feb. 23.

In Anbar in January, 10 people were killed when gunmen wearing explosive belts stormed a police building in provincial capital Ramadi.

Once an al-Qaeda stronghold and Iraq's most violent province in 2004-06, Anbar was subdued in 2006-07 when tribal leaders and former insurgents turned against the fighters. Tribal "awakening" militia joined U.S. forces and forced al-Qaeda out.

Tension has risen between Anbar and the Shiite-led central government in recent months, following an arrest campaign against former members of Mr. Hussein's banned Baath party.

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