BAGHDAD — U.S. forces battled Iraqi police and gunmen today, killing six policemen, after an American raid captured a police lieutenant accused of leading an Iranian-backed militia cell, the military said.
Seven gunmen also died in the fight, a rare open street battle between American troops and policemen. Washington has demanded the government purge its police force of militants, and U.S. and Iraqi authorities have arrested officers in the past for militia links. But the Bush administration said in an assessment yesterday that progress on that front was "unsatisfactory."
The lieutenant was captured before dawn in eastern Baghdad, but the soldiers came under "heavy and accurate fire" from a nearby Iraqi police checkpoint, as well as intense fire from rooftops and a church, the military said.
As the Americans fired back, U.S. warplanes struck in front of the police position, without hitting it directly, "to prevent further escalation" of the battle, it said. There were no casualties among the U.S. troops, but seven gunmen and six of the policemen firing on the Americans were killed, the military said.
The captured lieutenant was a "high-ranking" leader of a cell suspected of helping coordinate Iranian support for Shi'ite extremists in Iraq as well as carrying out roadside bombings against mortar attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, the military said. The lieutenant is thought to be linked to the Quds Force, a branch of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, it said.
The U.S. military accuses Iran's Quds Force of organizing Shi'ite militants into so-called "special groups" and arming them with weapons and explosives — including a particularly deadly form of roadside bombs called explosively formed penetrators. Iran denies the claims.
Infiltration by Shi'ite militias is pervasive in the Iraqi police, fueling a deep mistrust of the force among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, who often accuse policemen of involvement in kidnappings and slaying of Sunnis — or at least ignoring them.
Today's raid came amid a nearly month-old security crackdown in Baghdad by U.S. forces targeting Shi'ite militias and Sunni insurgents. A day earlier, U.S. troops battled militiamen in east Baghdad's Amin district in a fight the military said killed nine insurgents and two civilians — both Iraqi employees of the London-based Reuters news agency.
Iraqi police and hospital officials put the death toll higher, at 19, saying a woman and two children were among the dead.
The U.S. offensive in Baghdad — and parallel ones to the north and south — have brought a relative easing in attacks in the capital in recent weeks — although it remains far from calm, with occasional car bombs and police still reporting 20 to 30 bodies a day found dumped in the city, apparent victims of sectarian slayings.
Today, a volley of at least four mortars was fired from the city's dangerous southern districts at the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's offices and the U.S. Embassy are located. The mortars hit near the home of a senior Iraqi military official, killing two Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi army official said.
It is the second time in a week that mortar fire into the Green Zone — nearly a daily occurrence — has caused deaths. A heavy barrage Tuesday night killed three persons, including an American.