BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces on Sunday battled gunmen who detonated a car bomb before blasting their way into a government compound and killing seven policemen in a one-time Sunni insurgent hotbed, police and local government officials said.
The three-hour standoff between Shiite-dominated security forces and suspected Sunni insurgents in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, marked the first serious gunbattle for Iraqi forces against insurgents without American backup since the U.S. military completed its withdrawal last month.
Violence has surged since American troops left. It has included straight sectarian attacks, such as a bombing Saturday that killed more than 50 pilgrims during a Shiite procession, and attacks against the government, such as the Sunday assault.
The violence has raised concerns Iraq would return to the sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands of civilians after the U.S.-led invasion and brought the country to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
On Sunday morning, five gunmen wearing military uniforms and explosive-rigged vests stormed a compound in Ramadi, two police officials said. The compound houses Ramadi police headquarters and several federal security agencies, including an anti-terrorism police task force and a detention facility where terrorism suspects are interrogated.
Before reaching the compound in central Ramadi, the gunmen set off an explosives-filled car in the eastern part of the city, in an apparent effort to draw security personnel from the heavily guarded government area, according to an Anbar government official. Comrades of the attackers were being been held there on suspicion of involvement in terror attacks.
One policeman was killed and three others were injured in the blast, police and health officials said.
"There were explosions in other parts of Ramadi meant to attract the attention of police and engage them, because there was a bigger aim of the attackers, which was to occupy the main police station," Dhari Arkan, the deputy governor of Anbar, told the Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday.
An army officer in the Ramadi operations center said there were several suspected insurgents who were being held in the detention facility along with criminals and thieves. The makeshift prison is in the basement of the building the attackers stormed, the officer said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Sadoun Obaid al-Jumaily, deputy president of the Anbar Provincial Council, had a slightly different account of Sunday's assault. He told the AP that the five gunmen drove to the entrance of the compound. Four got out of the car and clashed with the police, Mr. al-Jumaily said.
Security forces killed two attackers, and two managed to get into the building where the suspected insurgents were being held.
"They came to free their colleagues ... that were recently detained," Mr. al-Jumaily said, adding that two gunmen got to the roof of the building. They were killed after an hourlong fight with security forces, Mr. al-Jumaily said.
The fifth attacker was killed in the blast of the explosives-packed car aimed at killing police and army troops, who were rushing to the compound the fight the gunmen, Mr. al-Jumaily said.
Six policemen were killed in the gunfight and 13 others were wounded, Mr. al-Jumaily said. Officials at Ramadi's main hospital confirmed the death toll.
Violence has soared in Iraq since the last U.S. troops left the country Dec. 18 after nine years of war. Most of the latest attacks appear to be aimed at Iraq's majority Shiites, suggesting Sunni insurgents seeking to undermine the Shiite-dominated government are to blame.
More than 145 people have been killed in attacks since the start of the year.
On Saturday, a bomb tore through a procession of Shiite pilgrims heading toward the largely Sunni town of Zubair in southern Iraq, killing at least 53 people and wounding at least 130 other in the latest sign of a power struggle between rival Muslim sects.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.