U.S. kills six Iraqi policemen in firefight

BAGHDAD — American troops battled Iraqi police suspected of links to Iranian-backed Shi'ite militiamen yesterday, killing six in a rare firefight between American soldiers and their Iraqi partners. The clash underscored the deep infiltration of militants in the country’s security forces.

In addition to the six police officers, seven gunmen were killed in the clash in eastern Baghdad, sparked when American troops arrested a police lieutenant, the U.S. military said. The lieutenant was thought to be helping Iran organize Shi'ite militants and leading a cell involved in bomb and mortar attacks on American and Iraqi troops.

The U.S. military has accused Iran of arming Shi'ite extremists drawn from the ranks of militias and organizing them into a network to carry out attacks on the troops. Yesterday’s statement, however, was the first time the military spoke of the Iranian efforts extending into the Iraqi police.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s army has boosted troop levels in its restive southeast to more than 200,000, most of them stationed along the border with Iraq, security sources told the Reuters news agency.

Those sources, who declined to be named, said the unusually large buildup, which includes tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft, was part of a security crackdown on Kurdish rebels hiding in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates dismissed the estimate of 200,000 troops, saying it was too high.

American forces in Iraq have arrested police in the past for Shi’ite militia links — but rarely have Americans and the uniformed police faced each other in a street battle.

The battle came a day after the Bush administration acknowledged that the Iraqi government was making “unsatisfactory” progress in its efforts to purge the police force of Shi’ite militia — among the benchmarks Washington says are needed to stabilize the country.

Shi'ite militias have considerable power within police ranks, prompting many Sunni Arabs to shun the force. Sunnis accuse the police of helping — or participating in — death squads that have slain thousands of their members.

Yesterday’s clash began before dawn when U.S. troops carried out a raid and captured the lieutenant, according to the military. The troops quickly came under heavy fire from several directions, including nearby rooftops and a church. “Heavy and accurate” fire was also coming from a nearby police checkpoint.

As the Americans fought back, U.S. warplanes struck in front of the police position, without hitting it directly, “to prevent further escalation” of the battle. 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.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which controls the police, refused to comment.

Over the past year, the government has removed several thousand policemen accused of militia links and has tightened the vetting process for recruits.

The captured lieutenant was a “high-ranking” leader of a cell suspected of helping coordinate Iranian support for Shi'ite extremists, the military said. He was also thought to be linked to the Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards that the U.S. military says is helping the insurgents — an accusation Tehran denies.

In other attacks yesterday, gunmen with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades blasted guard towers outside the Interior Ministry in central Baghdad, killing five guards and wounding nine, police said.

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