Yasser Ghazi contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Anbar province.
BAGHDAD — At least 20 police officers were killed in western Iraq early Monday by dozens of gunmen masquerading as black-clad SWAT teams out to make a high-level arrest, local security officials said.
The killings in Haditha, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, were the latest in a long militant campaign to infiltrate, undercut and batter Iraq’s military and police forces. The attack came about 10 days after suicide bombers and gunmen killed dozens of people at police checkpoints across Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
Around 2 a.m. on Monday, 40 gunmen dressed in police uniforms rolled into Haditha in six trucks painted to look like black emergency police vehicles.
To slip through the checkpoints on the city’s edge, the gunmen said they had arrest warrants for criminal suspects, Haditha’s police chief said. They flashed police identification cards and their vehicles even had police license plates, security officials said.
It was unclear whether any Iraqi police officers were complicit in the plot or had simply been duped. Dozens of shops across Baghdad sell security uniforms, rank and unit insignias, holsters and other gear that make it easy for militants to disguise themselves as police officers.
Once inside Haditha, the assailants drove to the homes of three police officers and shot them. One of the officers was Col. Mohammed Shafar, a former leader of the Awakening movement, a U.S.-backed group of Sunni militias that switched sides to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, helping to blunt some of the war’s worst violence.
After killing Shafar and the two other officers, the gunmen split up to escape. Clashes erupted when they were confronted while trying to leave the city and they fired on police checkpoints with automatic weapons and lobbed hand grenades.
Three police officers were also wounded in the attacks, local health officials said. At least one gunman was killed, but nearly all of them escaped and were last seen driving north, security officials said.
Local police said they had seized two of the assailants’ vehicles and found books and other materials suggesting they were connected to al-Qaida in Iraq, an insurgent group composed largely of Sunnis. The group did not claim responsibility for the attack but posts on its online message board hailed the bloodshed as a great victory.