Insurgents emboldened by a successful raid and jailbreak laid siege to another prison facility Wednesday, but police said U.S. troops and a special Iraqi unit overwhelmed the gunmen and captured 50 of them at the detention center south of Baghdad.
The predawn attack came a day after 100 Sunni gunmen freed 33 prisoners and wrecked the jail, police station and courthouse in the town of Muqdadiyah northeast of the capital and about an hour’s drive from the Iranian border.
Although Wednesday’s raid failed, the insurgents’ ability to put together such large and well-armed bands of fighters underlined concerns about the ability of Iraqi police and military to take over the fight from U.S. troops. Sixty militants participated in the second assault, which aimed to free more jailed insurgent fighters, police said.
The attack on the prison in Madain, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, began with insurgents firing 10 mortar rounds. They then stormed the facility, which is run by the Interior Ministry, a predominantly Shiite organization and heavily infiltrated by members of various Shiite militias.
4 police die in battle
Four police officers — including the commander of the special unit — died in a two-hour gunbattle, which was subdued only after American forces arrived. Among the 50 captured, police said, was one Syrian.
The U.S. military did not respond to a request for comment about its role in the counterattack.
Madain is at the northern tip of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated “Triangle of Death,” a farming region rife with sectarian violence — retaliatory kidnappings and killings in the underground conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
Police have discovered hundreds of corpses in the past four weeks, victims of religious militants on a rampage of revenge killing. At least 21 more bodies were found Wednesday, including those of 16 Shiite pilgrims discovered on a Baghdad highway, police said. Millions were returning home Wednesday at the conclusion of an important Shiite commemoration in the holy city of Karbala this week.
Chalabi targeted in mortar attack
In the northern town of Beiji, meanwhile, a mortar round fell on a government facility that Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi was visiting Wednesday, an aide said. Chalabi was not harmed and later returned to Baghdad, the aide said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Chalabi, who is also the interim oil minister, was believed to have been visiting the refinery in Beiji, the nation’s largest.
As U.S. officials step up pressure on Iraqi leaders to form a national unity government quickly, the United States’ top military commander said he had underestimated the extent of Iraqi reluctance to come together.
“I think that I certainly did not understand the depth of fear that was generated by the decades of Saddam’s rule,” said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I think a lot of Iraqis have been in the wait-and-see mode longer than I thought they would.”
Pace: Sunnis, Shiites in balance?
Pace said one solution was for the Iraqis to do a better job of recruiting more Sunnis into the army and for police forces to balance Shiite domination.
“A unit that has all (sects of) Iraqis embedded in it is better able to handle whatever kind of strife comes along,” the general said.
The Bush administration views formation of a broad-based government as a first step in quelling violence and allowing the start of an American troop withdrawal this summer.
While the U.S. military has touted its progress in training the Iraqi army and police, a top expert on Iraq said the forces remained poorly matched against the insurgency and al-Qaida.
“The police have almost no protected vehicles, few heavy weapons similar to those of insurgents, are often located in extremely vulnerable buildings, and have weak communications. Corruption is a major issue,” Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a position paper released this week.
In other violence:
- Gunmen in the capital targeted Shiite Muslims returning from a religious commemoration in the holy city of Karbala, killing six pilgrims and wounding 50 others traveling in minivans and the back of trucks, police said.
- A car bomb exploded near a busy Baghdad market on Wednesday, wounding three women and a girl, police said.
- Roadside bombs in Baghdad wounded at least six policemen, including four who work as guards at the Education Ministry, police said.
- Gunmen killed three civilians transporting bricks outside the city of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, police said. A roadside bomb then exploded when a police patrol went to the site, wounding one officer, police said.
- Police continued to find corpses in the shadowy war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Three bodies, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture, were found in a western Baghdad neighborhood just after midnight, and the body of a young man shot in the chest was discovered in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of the capital, police said. The body of a man wearing an Iraqi military uniform was delivered to a morgue in the southern city of Kut, a morgue official said.
Insurgent raid on prison
In the Tuesday attack in Muqdadiyah, about 100 gunmen cut phone wires and fired rocket-propelled grenades in a daring operation that freed 18 fellow insurgents who had been captured in police raids just two days earlier.
Police said 15 other captives were sprung in the assault on the Muqdadiyah lockup. Twenty Iraqi security men and at least 10 insurgents were killed in the attack.
In an Internet posting Tuesday night, the military wing of the Mujaheddin Shura Council, a militant Sunni Muslim insurgent group, purportedly claimed to have carried out the operation.
The posting said the group killed “40 policemen, liberated 33 prisoners and captured weapons.” The claim was posted on the Iraqi News Web site and could not be independently verified.
With the telephone lines cut, the insurgents had 90 minutes to battle their way into the law enforcement compound before police reinforcements showed up from the nearby villages of Wajihiyah and Abu Saida, police said.
Muqdadiyah, on the eastern fringe of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad, is about 25 miles from the Iranian border.
By the time the insurgents fled, taking away the bodies of many of their dead compatriots, nearly two dozen cars were shot up and set on fire; the jail was a charred mass of twisted bunk bed frames and smoldering mattresses.
U.S. helicopters were in the air above the jail after the insurgents had fled. Police said there was firing into the air by residents, but it was not clear if the American aircraft were the targets. None was hit.
The insurgents whose incarceration apparently prompted the assault were detained Sunday during raids by security forces in the nearby villages of Sansal and Arab, police said.
Insurgency still strong
Both U.S. and Iraqi military officials had said last year that the area was no longer an insurgent stronghold, but Tuesday’s attack showed the militants still could assemble a large force, capable of operating in the region virtually at will.
The insurgency’s strength, spiraling sectarian violence and the continuing stalemate over forming a government in Iraq have led politicians and foreign policy experts to say Iraq was on the brink or perhaps in the midst of civil war.
With an increasing number of Americans calling for a pullout of U.S. forces regardless of the consequences for Iraq, a powerful group of U.S. senators met with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Tuesday to discuss prospects for formation of a national unity government.
The Bush administration views that step as all-important in establishing peace and opening the way for the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal as early as this summer.
However, President Bush said Tuesday that the decision about when to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq will fall to future presidents and Iraqi leaders, suggesting that U.S. involvement will continue at least through 2008.
Al-Jaafari said he believed Iraq’s most difficult political hurdles had been crossed and predicted a new government would be ready in the coming weeks.
“I hope that the formation of the new government does not last beyond April,” al-Jaafari said after the meeting.