BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The militants showed no mercy. They blindfolded 18 men, shot them in the head and decapitated three others in what has become a trademark of Iraq's often savage insurgency. The 21 Iraqi bodies were found near a highway that meanders along the Euphrates River and into Syria.
Five U.S. Marines were killed in the same arid western region in a roadside bombing while conducting combat operations near a volatile Sunni town.
The latest violence near the Syrian border comes despite a major American and Iraqi military effort to drive tenacious insurgents out of Anbar province, one of Iraq's most dangerous territories.
The killings were a clear sign of the profound difficulties faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar province and their inability to seal the porous desert border with Syria despite major efforts to boost their military presence in the area.
Marines carried out two major operations in the area last month, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and 14 in the second, Operation New Market. Eleven Marines were killed in the actions, designed to scatter and eradicate insurgents using the road from Damascus to Baghdad.
The Marines were killed Thursday near the volatile Sunni town of Haqlaniyah, 90 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military said. Their deaths brought to at least 1,689 the number of U.S. military members killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Also Friday, gunmen killed the dean of the police academy in the southern city of Basra and an Iraqi soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded in the central city of Mashru.