- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

BAGHDAD — Insurgents emboldened by a successful raid and prison break laid siege to another prison facility yesterday, but police said U.S. troops and a special Iraqi unit overwhelmed the gunmen and captured 50 of them at the detention center south of Baghdad.

The pre-dawn attack came a day after 100 Sunni gunmen freed 33 prisoners and wrecked the prison, police station and courthouse in the town of Muqdadiyah northeast of the capital and about an hour’s drive from the Iranian border.

Although yesterday’s raid failed, the insurgents’ ability to put together such large and well-armed bands of fighters underlined concerns about the ability of Iraqi police and military to take over the fight from U.S. troops. Sixty militants participated in the second assault, which aimed to free more imprisoned insurgent fighters, police said.

The attack on the prison in Madain, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, began with insurgents firing 10 mortar rounds. They then stormed the facility, which is run by the Interior Ministry, a predominantly Shi’ite organization and heavily infiltrated by members of various Shi’ite militias.

Four police officers — including the commander of the special unit — died in a two-hour gunbattle, which was subdued only after U.S. forces arrived. There was one Syrian among the 50 captured, police said.

The U.S. military did not respond to a request for comment about its role in the counterattack.

Madain is at the northern tip of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated “Triangle of Death,” a farming region rife with sectarian violence, including retaliatory kidnappings and killings in the underground conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Police have discovered hundreds of corpses in the past four weeks, victims of religious militants on a rampage of revenge killing. At least 21 more bodies were found yesterday, including those of 16 Shi’ite pilgrims discovered on a Baghdad highway, police said. Millions were returning home yesterday at the conclusion of an important Shi’ite commemoration in Karbala this week.

In the northern town of Beiji, meanwhile, a mortar fell on a government facility that Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi was visiting, an aide said. Mr. Chalabi was not harmed and later returned to Baghdad, the aide said. Mr. Chalabi, who is also the interim oil minister, was thought to have been visiting the refinery in Beiji, the nation’s largest.

As U.S. officials step up pressure on Iraqi leaders to form a national-unity government quickly, the United States’ top military commander said he had underestimated the extent of Iraqi reluctance to come together.

“I think that I certainly did not understand the depth of fear that was generated by the decades of Saddam’s rule,” said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I think a lot of Iraqis have been in the wait-and-see mode longer than I thought they would.”

Gen. Pace said one solution was for the Iraqis to do a better job of recruiting more Sunnis into the army and for police forces to balance Shi’ite domination.

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