FALLUJAH, Iraq—In one of the boldest attacks by insurgents in post-war Iraq, an unknown number of fighters launched a multi-pronged offensive on an Iraqi police station Saturday, killing at least 20 people, wounding more than 30 and turning the streets of Fallujah into a battlefield in broad daylight.
At least some of the attackers were not Iraqis, interviews with witnesses indicated, and police identified two dead attackers as possibly Iranian. The size of the attacking force was not known, with estimates ranging from six to more than 50.
Most of those slain and injured were Iraqi policemen, hospital officials said.
The attackers also released 80 to 100 prisoners who were being held at the station, including some men with Iranian identification papers reportedly being questioned for a roadside bomb incident.
The attack raised serious questions about American military policy of moving out of towns to nearby posts and letting local security forces patrol the area. Not a single U.S. soldier was in sight during the approximately hour-long battle that spread through downtown Fallujah, witnesses said. Even hours after the battle, no U.S. troops were seen in the town.
A request for comment from the 82 Airborne Division, which is in charge of Fallujah, went unanswered. The commander of the 82nd, Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr. has publicly maintained that the area is under control, saying last month that he and his men were on a "glide-path toward success."
It was the second major incident in Fallujah in 48 hours. Thursday, a convoy carrying Swannack and Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all American forces in the Middle East, was attacked in Fallujah.
"There is no control here," said Hussein Ali, a 23-year-old Iraqi policeman who was shot three times in the left leg, once in the right thigh and once in the right hand. "The Americans brought this game here, and now they do not support us."
Those who survived gave hellish descriptions of the fighting.
Jamal Mohammad, a deputy lieutenant with the police force, was shot in the leg and crawled into a room for safety as the bullets rained down. A grenade tumbled into the room, and as Mohammad pushed it away, it exploded, taking much of his middle finger with it.
Gunmen then broke into the room, and he watched as they killed three of his friends who were hiding with him. Just before they turned their guns on him, Mohammad said, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the outer wall and sent smoke and rubble through the air. The assailants moved to another room, and Mohammad could hear the gunfire and screams.
"I was praying to Allah because I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," said Mohammad, who spoke from a hospital room where blood-soaked bandages lay on the floor.
The attack was the culmination of a disastrous week for Iraqi security forces. More than 50 people, most of them police recruits, died Tuesday in a suicide attack in the town of Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. At least 47 people were killed Wednesday in a car bombing at an Iraqi army recruiting station in Baghdad.
The aftermath of Saturday's battle was chaotic, with Iraqi police firing into the air and threatening to shoot or arrest journalists. The police station was pockmarked with hundreds of bullet craters and several spots where RPGs had hit.
Fallujah, about 30 minutes west of Baghdad, has been one of the most consistently violent towns in an area known as the Sunni Triangle. The name is derived from the majority population of Sunni Muslims, who enjoyed favor under Saddam Hussein's regime.
Local residents said that there have been fliers circulating through town from a group that purports to be an insurgent Islamic organization warning that it will soon install its own government and that those who cooperate with the Americans, such as the police, should expect punishment.
The battle began at about 8:30 a.m. when a "front line" of attackers drove through the middle of town and got out of their cars and trucks with machine guns, while others scrambled to the top of nearby roofs with rocket-propelled grenades or set mortars.
Walid Khalid, a barber, was opening up his shop when he saw the procession.
"I asked them what they were doing and they said shut up or we will we shoot you in the face," said Khalid, who noted that the men spoke in broken Arabic.
The attackers surrounded the police station and began with a volley of machine gun fire to draw out the police officers, according to witnesses. When the officers came out, they were hit by mortars, hand thrown grenades and RPG fire.
As the barrage came down, the attackers pushed through the gates leading to the police station parking lot and then into the station itself, killing and maiming police officers as they went, and releasing the prisoners.
Witness reports that the attackers looked foreign and spoke Arabic poorly raised more questions about the nature of the violence in Iraq. U.S. officials have said they believe foreign fighters are taking more of a role in attacks, including a spate of suicide bombings. Last week, the U.S. raised to $10 million the bounty for the arrest of a Jordanian, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who U.S. officials say is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Several policemen interviewed Saturday said that at least three of the attackers were killed during the battle and two of those were Iranian. There were other reports that the dead men were Lebanese, however.
Mohammad Karim, an officer who was hit by shrapnel, said he was certain that the attackers were foreign fighters. One of the dead, he said, had long hair and a beard, and was wearing a green headband with black Arabic letters reading "There is no God but Allah." Other witnesses said that some of the fighters who rushed the police station carried a banner with the same phrase.
A document taken from an alleged al-Qaida courier in northern Iraq and attributed to Zarqawi recently called for radical Islamic guerillas to destabilize Iraq though terrorist attacks.
Police officials in Fallujah declined to let journalists view the dead bodies or their identification.
One of the officials, who would not give his name, said that proving the attackers were foreigners really didn't matter after the day's death and bloodshed.
"It's too late for the truth," he said. "We are in the middle of a war."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ