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15 Iraq troops killed as militants attack barracks

BAGHDAD -- Militants in Iraq attacked military barracks in a remote area in the country's north and killed 15 troops overnight, officials said Tuesday, the latest blow to the government's efforts to achieve stability.

According to two police officials, an unknown number of gunmen staged the assault on the barracks in Ayn al-Jahish village outside the northern city of Mosul late on Monday.

The troops are in charge of protecting an oil pipeline that sends Iraqi crude oil to international markets and guard a nearby highway. Attacks on this pipeline are common in that area near Mosul, a former insurgent stronghold located about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Eight of the soldiers were beheaded during the attack while the rest were killed by gunfire, a medical official said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The brazen attack comes amid a surge in violence to levels unseen in Iraq since 2008. It's been a most serious challenge to the Shiite-led government's efforts to achieve stability. Violence has spiked since last April, when security forces cracked down on a Sunni protest camp north of Baghdad in clashes that left 45 dead.

The situation deteriorated significantly in late December, when security forces dismantled a protest camp near the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi.

To defuse tensions, security forces withdrew from Ramadi and the nearby city of Fallujah. Al Qaeda-linked militants promptly took over parts of Ramadi and the center of Fallujah. Since then, the government and allied tribes have been struggling to wrest control of the cities back from the militants.

Sporadic clashes continued Tuesday in some parts of Ramadi, with only limited success by security forces. Meanwhile, in Fallujah, masked and armed al-Qaida-linked militants in traditional Afghani two-piece clothing were seen in the city's main intersections, checking IDs of passers-by.

Last year, Iraq saw the highest death toll since the worst of the country's sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year in Iraq.

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