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Originally published October 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 20, 2006 at 5:46 PM

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Al-Qaida-linked gunmen parade defiantly through several Iraqi towns

Al-Qaida-linked gunmen staged military-like parades today in a string of towns west of Baghdad, underlining the growing confidence of Sunni insurgents.

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Al-Qaida-linked gunmen staged military-like parades today in a string of towns west of Baghdad, underlining the growing confidence of Sunni insurgents in a part of Iraq where U.S. and Iraqi forces maintain a heavy counterinsurgency presence.

Like the audacious show of force by up to 60 insurgents in the city of Ramadi on Wednesday, the latest parades — including two less than a mile from U.S. military bases — were staged in support of an announcement this week by a militant Sunni Arab group that it had created an Islamic state in six of Iraq's 18 provinces, including the capital, Baghdad.

The declaration was made Sunday by the Mujahedeen Shura Council — an umbrella organization of Sunni insurgent groups that includes al-Qaida in Iraq — in a video posted on the Internet.

Iraqi insurgents are not known to control any territory in Iraq, but the declaration appeared designed to counter the adoption this month of a law that paves the way for Iraq's mainly Shiite south to establish an autonomous region similar to a Kurdish one in the north.

Significantly, two of Friday's four parades — involving dozens of gunmen in the towns of Haditha and Haqlaniyah — took place less a mile from U.S. military bases, according to witnesses. There were no reports of clashes.

Besides Haditha and Haqlaniyah, parades were also held in the towns of Bani Daher and Rwah, all of which are in Anbar, a vast and mostly desert province where the Sunni insurgency has been fiercest since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003. Ramadi is Anbar's provincial capital.

In Haditha, where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high since Marines allegedly killed 24 civilians to avenge the death of one of their own last fall, masked gunmen riding in at least 20 sedans and pickup trucks paraded undisturbed in the heart of the town for about 30 minutes.

The town, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, has not had a police force for much of the past three years, and the U.S. military at a nearby base did not intervene.

The masked gunmen, who shouted "God is great," wore white overalls — a color that indicates their readiness to die. They carried assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

The gunmen also distributed candy and new clothes to gathered children, a gesture to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, which is due to start next week. Shops on the street where the parade was held remained open, and none of the shoppers appeared intimidated or worried by the presence of the gunmen.

Television footage of Wednesday's parade in Ramadi was widely broadcast, but U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said Thursday he knew nothing about it.

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said earlier Thursday that participants in the Ramadi parade were members of al-Qaida in Iraq and that they suffered unspecified losses in clashes with security and tribal forces following the parade, in which black-clad, masked gunmen took over a central street for 15 minutes.

The bravado shown by insurgents in Anbar serves to illustrate the problems faced by the U.S. military and their Iraqi allies in dealing with the rapidly deteriorating security in the country.

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