BAQOUBA, Iraq—Insurgents staged near-simultaneous attacks Thursday against police and security installations across Iraq, killing around 100 people and wounding more than 300, fueling perceptions of a country in chaos just six days before an interim Iraqi government assumes power.
Fighting raged across Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland in Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baghdad and Baqouba, where black-clad gunmen seized and held the central police station. An American general said U.S. forces had been able to re-establish order in most areas, but the bold, multi-pronged attack demonstrated that, after a 15-month reconstruction effort, militants are still able to emerge from hiding and wreak havoc at a time of their choosing.
The day's events also showed that on the eve of the return of sovereignty, Iraqi security forces, particularly the lightly armed police, often are no match for machine gun- and grenade-wielding insurgents.
Most of the casualties were in Mosul, where 62 people died and 220 were injured in attacks that included a series of car bombs. The figures didn't include three slain American soldiers.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the attacks were the work of "criminals trying to harm the Iraqi people in order to undermine the democratic process" and that the battles were "part of the process of our emancipation."
A statement quoted Thursday by a Saudi Web site reportedly claimed responsibility for the Baqouba attacks in the name of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who told Iraqis to remain in their homes "because these days are going to witness campaigns and attacks against the occupation troops and those who stand beside them."
Zarqawi's organization has been linked to some of Iraq's worst violence over the last year, including the recent beheadings of civilian hostages Nicholas Berg, an American, and Kim Sun-il, of South Korea. On Wednesday, a statement attributed to Zarqawi promised to kill Allawi.
A senior coalition military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as military officers frequently do when interpreting events, said the violence was probably the work of former Saddam loyalists, but he expressed concern that those people were now working with the foreign fighters thought to make up Zarqawi's forces.
He sought to play down the significance of the fighting, saying: "You could really sort of do this in any city in the world. If you have machine guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and you go into the police station at the corner of 8th and I in Washington, D.C., and you could take it over for a short period of time ... looks good on television, and it sounds good in print, but does it truly have an effect over a period of time? The answer is no."
An officer in the field, however had a different view. "These attacks are not significant enough to hinder our operations militarily, but they do have a psychological effect on the population," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulp, a 1st Infantry Division battalion commander. "This, frankly, sets us back a couple of weeks."
Repeating a phrase heard often by military commanders in Iraq these days, he said the Iraqi people "need to get off the fence" and stop harboring insurgents whose attacks are impeding the reconstruction.
Some of the heaviest gun battles occurred in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, where insurgents took control of the central police station after attacking at about 5:40 a.m. local time, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Militants also attacked police stations in Ramadi and Mahaweel, and detonated four car bombs against police targets and a hospital in the northern city of Mosul.
The home of the Diyala province chief of police, who oversees Baqouba, was set on fire while he responded to attacks, the military said.
In Baghdad, four Iraqi soldiers were killed and two Americans were wounded when a man dressed as a police officer blew himself up at a checkpoint, a U.S. officer on the scene said.
There were reports of significant fighting Thursday morning in Fallujah, a center of armed resistance where American Marines have stepped back in favor of a brigade of Iraqi soldiers.
In Baqouba, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division engaged militants with tanks, and American jets dropped three laser-guided 500-pound bombs on houses from which soldiers were taking small-arms fire, military officials said.
Thursday's attacks were part of a long-standing pattern of violence against the reconstituted Iraqi police force, including a string of car bombings that have killed hundreds of officers.
In February, militants in Fallujah attacked a police station and freed jailed prisoners; and in April, members of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia took over several police stations. American officials acknowledge that the police still lack enough arms, ammunition and equipment, but they also say some have proved unwilling to fight anti-occupation militants.
As they have in the past, insurgents in some cases recklessly stood their ground against U.S. forces Thursday.
In interviews on the main road to the center of Baqouba, soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division said that two men, in an apparent fit of suicidal rage, had rammed their truck into an Abrams tank and died after their gas tank exploded. Two other RPG-wielding militants were killed when a tank fired its main gun and decimated their truck, said Lt. Adam Pooley of Springfield, Va.
Some insurgent raids were less successful than others. Four Iraqi police stations in Baghdad were attacked Wednesday and Thursday by men using mortars, hand grenades and rifles, the U.S. military said in a statement, adding that the attacks were repelled by Iraqi police "with minimal assistance from coalition forces."
It was unclear what role, if any, Iraq's new defense forces played in repulsing Thursday's attacks. As American troops and tanks slugged it out with militants in the Sunni heartland, the senior commanders of Iraq's army sat in Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone—where the U.S.-led coalition is headquartered—listening to a speech by the Iraqi defense minister.
Shortly afterward, an American occupation official briefed reporters on the structure of the new Defense Ministry while video of the attacks played on television news channels in the background.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Tom Lasseter and photographer Pauline Lubens contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040624 Iraq attacks