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Rebels storm police and army bases leaving 19 Iraqi security men dead

By Justin Huggler in Fallujah

15 February 2004

In a shattering blow to the American occupation of Iraq, insurgents yesterday successfully stormed the Iraqi police headquarters in Fallujah, shooting their way in and killing at least 19 people. The guerrillas, armed with heavy machine-guns and rockets, also overpowered the local Iraqi army garrison.

US forces, unable to reach the scene in time, were powerless to intervene as their newly created Iraqi security forces were quickly overwhelmed. Some 75 prisoners managed to escape during the raid.

An Iraqi police officer told yesterday how the attackers moved from room to room inside the police headquarters, gunning down the helpless police officers where they stood, even killing the wounded. He said he only survived because he was able to kick away a grenade the insurgents threw at him.

Four of the attackers were killed in the gun battle. Iraqi police said they believed three of them were foreign militants, because they were carrying foreign passports, but that the fourth was carrying an Iraqi identity card from Baghdad ­ but it was impossible to confirm these claims.

The army base attacked yesterday was the same one at which General Johan Abizaid, the most senior American general in Iraq, narrowly escaped with his life in a rocket-propelled grenade attack two days earlier. Yesterday's raid capped a terrible week for the occupation, in which at least 100 Iraqis died in two suicide bombings aimed at new police and army recruits.

It was a devastating display of power by the insurgents. They have moved beyond car bombings now. They are able to fight head on with American-trained Iraqi security forces and capture their own bases from them. These are the forces the Americans were planning to entrust with security when they hand over political control to an interim Iraqi government on 30 June. In fact, there were no American forces inside Fallujah when the attack happened yesterday because the US has been trying to pull its own troops out of harm's way, handing over day-to-day security to Iraqis. After Saturday's raid, there will be more doubts over whether the US can hope to hand over power by 30 June and extricate its troops so easily from the Iraqi quagmire.

Fallujah was an edgy place yesterday, with angry locals openly roaming the streets with Kalashnikovs in hand. Near the scene of the raid, a series of compounds housing the local police and army bases and the mayor's office, one of the survivors from the Iraqi police told what happened. He identified himself only as Lieutenant Karim.

At around 8.30am, he said, the police headquarters suddenly came under attack. Trapped inside their offices, the police had little idea what was going on, but could hear heavy shooting all around. After just 15 minutes, the attackers managed to take control of the police station. They started killing the officers inside, and tossing hand grenades into each room.

Lt Karim and a colleague ran. As they fled, the attackers threw a grenade after them, but by luck it landed just in front of Lt Karim's foot and he was able to kick it away before it went off. He and his colleague escaped. The prisoners ­ common criminals rather than security detainees, said police ­ then broke out of their cells.

A second group of guerrillas also surrounded the army base and opened fire with heavy machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Although there were no casualties among the Iraqi soldiers, they seem to have been easily overpowered and powerless to help.

The raid was the culmination of a series of attacks on the new Iraqi security forces this week, after car bombings targeted new recruits to both the police and army on Tuesday and Wednesday, killing at least 100. It was in Fallujah that a recent communiqué was issued, signed by various Sunni resistance groups, warning Iraqis not to work with American forces or risk being attacked as "collaborators". Fallujah, the Sunni town where much of the resistance to American occupation began, has come to symbolise that resistance to many Iraqis.

But while those we spoke to were proud of Thursday's attack on Gen Abizaid ­ "If only he had been killed. That would have been a humiliation for George Bush," was how one man put it ­ they seemed uncertain about yesterday's attack. Some of this ambivalence seems to come from the widespread belief it had been the work of foreigners, rather than Fallujah's homegrown resistance. The US this week released what it said was a letter from a foreign militant in Iraq to Al-Qa'ida leaders, which it claimed was proof that foreign militants are behind the campaign of suicide bombings.

Lt Karim claimed that identity papers found on the four dead insurgents at yesterday's scene identified three as coming from Lebanon, Egypt and, surprisingly, Iran. He said an ID card found on the fourth showed he was an Iraqi from the Kadhamiya district of Baghdad. That would be surprising, since Kadhamiya is an overwhelmingly Shia district, and there has been no Shia resistance until now. Other reports spoke of two Lebanese and two Kuwaitis.

If the claims that three of yesterday's attackers were foreigners are true ­ and they were far from being confirmed yesterday ­ they would be some of the first hard evidence to back US claims that foreign militants are behind much of the insurgency.

But no one doubts that there is a highly developed homegrown Iraqi resistance that has been behind most of the ambushes of US patrols and could be involved in the suicide bombings and yesterday's raids as well. It was in Fallujah that much of the resistance to the occupation began, and it was in Fallujah yesterday that a new phase began, with the insurgents stepping up their attacks to a new level. The fear now will be of more raids on the model used yesterday, and no one knows where the next might come.


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