Thursday, February 12, 2004

From combined dispatches

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Insurgents launched a brazen attack yesterday on a civil-defense outpost visited by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Several attackers fired three rocket-propelled grenades, apparently from a rooftop, and the party was pelted with small-arms fire from a nearby mosque. Gen. Abizaid and his party escaped injury in the gunbattle, which lasted about six minutes.

A Central Command spokesman said it was not known whether the attackers were targeting Gen. Abizaid.

The Washington Times reported last month that some Bush administration officials suspect that there could be Saddam Hussein loyalists working in the coalition command structure in Baghdad and passing information about troop and VIP movements to insurgents.

One defense source said there was talk of setting up a counterintelligence team to investigate such activity.

Yesterday’s attack began just moments after a convoy carrying the general and his party pulled inside the cinder-block walls at the headquarters of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps in Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad.

A total of three explosions were heard near the rear of the compound, and U.S. soldiers responded with a barrage of rifle and machine-gun fire.

No U.S. soldiers were injured, but Iraqis in the city said two persons were killed when the Americans sprayed the area with automatic fire. Video taken by Associated Press Television News showed civilian cars with bullet holes and bloodstains.

“We heard from a citizen that someone was killed in a car,” Fallujah police Lt. Omar Ali said. “We sent our patrols to the site of the incident. When we arrived there, we saw American forces. They took two dead, put them in a vehicle and left.”

His account could not be independently confirmed.

Gen. Abizaid was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. After the gunbattle, both canceled plans to walk into the city and returned to a U.S. military base nearby.

A defense official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press it was likely the insurgents had been tipped off to the presence of the senior general.

However, U.S. officials, briefing reporters at military headquarters in Baghdad, said they were not prepared to make such a link. Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt noted that similar attacks have occurred before in Fallujah.

“Whether we can directly link this attack to any foreknowledge that General Abizaid and General Swannack would be there is, I think, a bit of a leap that we’re not prepared to make at this time,” he said.

Gen. Kimmitt said in a statement later that a local mosque “was thought to be harboring the attackers, and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldiers conducted a search of the mosque without result.”

Gen. Kimmitt, quoting Gen. Swannack, blamed the attack on “a small number of personnel unrepresentative” of most of the people of Fallujah.

Gen. Abizaid appeared unfazed as he left in a convoy of Humvee utility vehicles with soldiers of the 82nd Airborne’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Later, he flew on to Qatar as scheduled.

Speaking in Arabic to a member of the Iraqi security force after the gunfight, the general asked about the attack and was told: “This is Fallujah. What do you expect?”

Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad, is a hotbed of anti-American activity and is part of the area known as the Sunni Triangle, Saddam Hussein’s former power base.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke to reporters after testifying on Capitol Hill but had no answers. “I have no idea what initiated that attack,” he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld said he could only guess about the motives of the attackers, including the possibility that they were paid insurgents.

“There’s no question that there are former regime elements who think they would like to take the country back,” he said. “But they’re not going to.”

Gen. Abizaid was tapped as Central Command chief after Gen. Tommy Franks retired after the ouster of Saddam.

Gen. Abizaid is the third high-profile American official to escape an attack in Iraq.

The others are U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, whose convoy was attacked in December, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whose Baghdad hotel was hit by rockets in October.

Gen. Kimmitt said eight mortars were fired at a U.S. base in Baghdad yesterday, slightly wounding three soldiers.

• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report from Washington.

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