- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

FALLUJAH — Guerrillas overwhelmed an Iraqi police station west of Baghdad yesterday, meeting little resistance as they went room to room shooting police in a bold, well-organized assault that killed 19 persons and freed dozens of prisoners, officials said.

The fierce daylight attack in Fallujah raised questions about whether Iraqi police and defense forces are ready to battle insurgents as the U.S. military pulls back from the fight in advance of the June 30 handover of power to Iraqis.

Police in the Fallujah station complained they had only small arms — nothing larger than an automatic rifle in the face of dozens of fighters armed with heavy machine guns, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. forces took part in the battle.

Before the attack, the gunmen set up checkpoints and blocked the road leading to the police station, but residents did not notify police, Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim said in Baghdad. Nearby store owners were warned not to open yesterday morning, one shopkeeper in Fallujah said.

The battle left 17 policemen, two civilians and four attackers dead. At least 37 persons were wounded, nearly all police. Two wounded attackers were captured, but the rest escaped.

One wounded policeman, Qais Jameel, said he heard the attackers speaking a foreign language that he speculated was Farsi. Rumors were circulating that a Shi’ite Muslim militia with ties to Iran, the Badr Brigade, was behind the attack on this Sunni town.

The United States wants the police, civil defense forces and the military to take the front line against the persistent guerrilla war when U.S. administrators hand over power in June.

U.S. troops will take a lower profile, pulling out of most towns. But their continued presence in the country would likely mean the insurgency, led by Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign Islamic terrorists, also will continue its campaign of violence.

Already, guerrillas have launched a stepped-up series of bloody attacks against the incomplete Iraqi security forces. Earlier this week, back-to-back suicide bombings killed 100 Iraqis, most of them volunteers looking to join the police or military in Baghdad and a town just to the south.

About 300 Iraqi security forces have been killed since they were re-established in May.

The U.S. military has been organizing the reconstruction of the Iraqi security forces. The police force has neared its planned goal of 71,000 members.

The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, in charge of internal security, has about 21,000 members and is planned to reach 92,000. The army is recruiting a force of 40,000 soldiers.

In yesterday’s attack, about 25 gunmen, some masked and shouting the Islamic slogan “There is no God but Allah,” stormed the police station, witnesses said.

At the same time, two dozen more attackers pinned down forces at a nearby compound of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire to keep them from coming to the aid of police, according to the witnesses.

The same compound came under attack only two days earlier by gunmen who opened fire from rooftops as Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, was visiting. Gen. Abizaid was unharmed in the attack.

In Baghdad, Mr. Ibrahim, the deputy interior minister, said recent attacks are aimed at tearing apart Iraqi unity.

“I warn the Iraqi people against a civil war,” he said, adding: “They have to unite and leave behind the personal and other interests to preserve Iraq.”

U.S. soldiers fended off an attack by gunmen yesterday against their base in Muqdadiyah, 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. Ten attackers were killed, witnesses said.

Also yesterday, demonstrations broke out in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah and the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, where hundreds of Iraqis demanded an end to U.S. military raids and searches of their homes.

Carrying placards that read “Today Demonstrations, Tomorrow Explosions,” protesters gathered near a giant American-run prison — built by Saddam Hussein — and demanded the release of thousands of Iraqi prisoners.

In Kurdish-majority Sulaimaniyah, thousands of protesters clamored for an independent Kurdish state that includes the three autonomous Kurdish provinces as well as disputed parts of northern Iraq containing a large Arab population.

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