- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

BAGHDAD — Insurgents set off car bombs and seized police stations yesterday in an offensive aimed at creating chaos ahead of next week’s transfer of power to a new Iraqi government. U.S. and Iraqi forces regained control in heavy fighting, but the day’s violence killed at least 100 persons, including three U.S. soldiers.

Abu Musab Zarqawi’s terror network took responsibility for the attacks. Most of the casualties were Iraqi civilians. A large number were killed in simultaneous car bombings in the northern city of Mosul, but some also died as U.S. troops battled the guerrillas. At least 320 persons were wounded, including 12 Americans.

Meanwhile, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army declared a truce late yesterday in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and said it was ready to help protect important sites from terror attacks.

“Considering the exceptional circumstances that our people face, we have decided to stop from tonight the military operations in Sadr City until we receive new orders,” the militia’s central committee said.

“All the Mahdi’s Army will respect this decision or face expulsion,” it said.

Yesterday’s broad offensive — with violence in at least six cities — was the most extensive since attacks in early April. It showed a strength to the insurgency that appeared to surprise even U.S. officials, who have been warning that guerrillas would try to sabotage the transfer of power.

The U.S. military responded with heavy firepower, dropping 11 500-pound bombs and a 2,000-pound bomb.

The assaults were launched in the morning, when black-clad guerrillas attacked police stations and government complexes in Baghdad, Baqouba, Mosul, Ramadi and Mahaweel. U.S. troops and insurgents traded heavy fire on the outskirts of Fallujah.

The heaviest fighting was in Baqouba, northeast of the capital, where guerrillas shot their way into a government office complex, seized two police stations and destroyed the home of the provincial police chief. Insurgents brandishing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades roamed streets deserted by police.

In several hours of fighting, U.S. tanks rolled into the city, machine guns blazing, and aircraft dropped three 500-pound bombs on insurgent positions near the soccer stadium, said Maj. Neal O’Brien of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. By afternoon, control of the buildings was restored.

Two American soldiers died in the Baqouba fighting, the military said.

But the day’s worst bloodshed came in Mosul — the country’s northern metropolis often touted as a success story in restoring order in Iraq — where the U.S. military said 62 persons were killed, including a U.S. soldier, and more than 220 persons were wounded.

Most died when at least four car bombs rocked the police academy, two police stations and the al-Jumhuri Hospital.

U.S. troops recaptured the Sheik Fathi police station in a hail of gunfire, and Iraqi troops raided a nearby mosque used by insurgents, the U.S. military said. Mosul’s governor imposed an overnight curfew.

In Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 60 miles west of Baghdad, gunmen barraged a police station with rocket-propelled grenades, destroying the building. At least 20 persons were killed in the city, according to the Health Ministry.

“We were inside the station, and suddenly, there was a very heavy explosion,” police 1st Lt. Ahmed Sami said. “We discovered later on that the station was attacked from all around.”

Coalition officials said the offensive could augur escalated attacks in Baghdad in coming days.

Zarqawi’s followers took responsibility for yesterday’s attacks in a statement posted on an Islamic Web site often used by his Tawhid and Jihad movement. The statement said the “occupation troops and apostates” — meaning Iraqi police — “were overwhelmed with shock and confusion.”

Analysis of the tape showed it likely was Zarqawi’s voice, a CIA official said yesterday.

American and Iraqi officials insisted the transfer of power on Wednesday would proceed as planned. Yesterday, the coalition turned over the last 11 government ministries to Iraqi officials.

During the transfer ceremony, Mr. Allawi said the attacks were “only acts of disturbances conducted by cowards” meant “to foil the democratic process.”

The assault showed continued weakness among the security forces that Mr. Allawi has vowed to reinforce to fight insurgents.

Motorists who drove through Fallujah said insurgents and uniformed Iraqi police appeared to be cooperating, chatting amiably on the street corners.

Harried doctors, some working in bloodstained white coats, struggled to cope with a stream of wounded brought to Baqouba’s hospital in civilian cars and pickup trucks. Halls in the emergency room were spattered with blood. The Health Ministry said 13 persons were killed and 15 wounded.

The wounded screamed in agony, and many of their friends and relatives directed their anger at the Americans, whom they blamed for destroying the order imposed by Saddam Hussein.

“May God destroy America and all those who cooperate with it,” one man screamed in the hospital hall.

In the Rasheed area of Baghdad, someone dressed in an Iraqi police uniform carrying a suitcase or a briefcase blew himself up near a U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint, killing four Iraqi soldiers and wounding at least one American, U.S. soldiers said.

Insurgents also attacked four Baghdad police stations with mortars, hand grenades and Kalashnikov rifles, but the U.S. military said Iraqi police fended off the attackers.

In Mahaweel, south of Baghdad, a bomb exploded outside the police station, killing one officer and wounding six.

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