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Zarqawi militants seize key town in western

Iraq Al Qaeda group flies banner from rooftops

BAGHDAD -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's foreign-led Al Qaeda in Iraq took open control yesterday of a key western town at the Syrian border, deploying its guerrilla fighters in the streets and flying Zarqawi's black banner from rooftops, said tribal leaders and other residents in the city and nearby villages.

A sign newly posted at the entrance of Qaim declared, ''Welcome to the Islamic Kingdom of Qaim." A statement posted in mosques described Qaim as an ''Islamic kingdom liberated from the occupation."

Zarqawi's fighters were killing officials and civilians seen as government-allied or anti-Islamic, witnesses, residents, and others said.

On Sunday, a woman was found shot to death in a street of Qaim. A sign left on her body declared, ''A prostitute who was punished."

Zarqawi's fighters had shot to death nine men in public executions in the city center since the weekend, accusing the men of being spies and collaborators for US forces, said Sheik Nawaf Mahallawi, a leader of a Sunni Arab tribe, the Albu Mahal, that had battled the foreign fighters.

Dozens of families were fleeing Qaim daily, Mahallawi said.

''It would be insane to attack Zarqawi's people, even to shoot one bullet at them," Mahallawi said yesterday. We cannot attack them. But we will not stand still if they attack us. We hope the US forces end this in the coming days. We want the city to go back to its normal situation."

In other developments across Iraq yesterday:

Insurgents launched a daylight assault against the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, killing two police officers in a surge of attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Thunderous explosions and volleys of heavy gunfire rattled the downtown soon after sunrise as about four carloads of insurgents staged a lightning raid on the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for police and paramilitary units nationwide.

The insurgents, who fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, withdrew after about 15 minutes, leaving two police officers dead and five wounded. There was no report of insurgent casualties.

A statement posted on an Islamic website claimed responsibility for the attack in the name of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In Tal Afar, at least eight Iraqi civilians, including five children, were killed in fighting yesterday. There was no report of casualties among the combatants, including the US Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is trying to wrest control of Tal Afar, 260 miles north of Baghdad, from insurgents and foreign fighters.

Two British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the flash-point city of Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Britain's Ministry of Defense said.

Captain Jeffrey Pool, a US Marine spokesman in Ramadi, capital of the western province that includes Qaim, said Marines in the area of Qaim had no word of any unusual activity in the city. Numerous Marines are stationed near the town, although Marines said they were not involved in recent ground fighting between pro-government tribal fighters and Zarqawi's group.

According to a pool report, the Iraqi government has no forces in Qaim.

Qaim, which is within a few miles of the Syrian border, has been a major stronghold for insurgents ferrying fighters, weapons, and money from Syria into the rest of Iraq along a network of Euphrates River towns.

Many of the towns along the river have appeared to be heavily under the insurgents' domination, despite repeated Marine offenses along the river since May. Residents and Marines have described insurgents escaping ahead of the offensives, and returning when the offensives are over.

While the stepped-up US offensives have been unable to drive out insurgents permanently, the US attacks are credited by some with helping disrupt insurgent networks and reduce the number of car-bombings and suicide attacks in the rest of Iraq.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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