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Fallujah's former mayor questioned by U.S. troops

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Machine-gun-toting Iraqi men swarmed the downtown streets of Fallujah on Monday as reports circulated that U.S. forces had detained Mayor Raad Hussein for questioning about an assault on the local police station on Saturday.

"If those questions lead to his innocence, then I suspect he will be released," said Gen. Mark Kimmitt in Baghdad. "If those questions lead coalition forces to suspect he may somehow have been involved in the loss of life of 25 Iraqi police service members inside the town of Fallujah, I would suspect we're going to be holding him for quite some time."

Continuing confusion over who launched Saturday's attack and who is in control of the city offer a foretaste of the messy job that U.S. troops will face in handing over authority to Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi guards outside the mayor's office said Hussein was arrested by U.S. soldiers late Saturday night and remains in custody. Many residents, including the guards, said Hussein was still the mayor, despite reports that he'd resigned a few days earlier.

Hussein was the town's interim mayor, having come to power when his U.S.-backed predecessor resigned last November after his office was ransacked and set on fire. Unlike the previous mayor, Hussein had the support of many of the area's tribal sheiks.

Kimmitt said investigators suspect the attackers on Saturday had inside help, including the cutting of phone lines so the police couldn't call for backup. There also may have been a false report called in just before the attack to pull out some of the police force and make the station easier to overtake, he said.

A convoy carrying Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all American forces in the Middle East, was attacked near the police station in Fallujah on Thursday. There was speculation that the ambush was the result of an insider's tip. That attack and Saturday's weren't related, Kimmitt said.

Witnesses said carloads of gunmen pulled up to the police station early Saturday morning and launched an assault that included heavy machine-gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The police officers, who ran out at the sound of gunfire, and nearby civil defense corps troops were pinned down as the attackers stormed the station and began shooting men, witnesses said.

The identities of the attackers were unclear Monday.

"It would appear to us that the size of the attack, and the tactics that were used, that (this) was an organization, possibly paramilitary, possibly former regime elements," Kimmitt said. "At the same time, some of the people that we captured, some of the people that were killed gave indications that they may have . . . had some affiliations with terrorist groups."

The attackers appeared to be trying to free up to four men who were held in the jail. The men have been accused of attacking a group of Iraqi civil defense troops, Kimmitt said. Dozens of the inmates were freed during the havoc.

Several Iraqi policemen said the shooters spoke in broken Arabic and that the men who were killed had identification cards showing they were Iranian or, as others maintained, Lebanese.

"Nobody knows who they are, where they are from or what they want other than to kill us," said Khaled Saleh, an Iraqi police officer.

Kimmitt said reports from the 82nd Airborne Division, which is responsible for the area, indicated the attackers were Iraqis. "That may turn out not to be the case after the investigation," he said.

U.S. intelligence officials in Washington, who have been worried for several weeks that Iran's Ministry of Intelligence is helping Shiite Muslim fighters infiltrate Iraq from Iran, suspect that Iranian-backed guerrillas and members of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah terrorist group may have attacked the police station. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah was instrumental in driving first American and later Israeli forces out of Lebanon.

While Kimmitt insisted that the Army hadn't turned over local control to Iraqi security forces, there were no U.S. soldiers in sight all Monday afternoon. Only one convoy of Humvees sped into the police barracks.

While some of the Iraqi men holding AK-47 rifles around town wore uniforms and identified themselves as official Iraqi security personnel, others wore no badges and were dressed in jeans or olive cargo pants. There were gunmen spread across rooftops and, in a couple of instances, men holding rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Many of those without uniforms hid their faces with the traditional checkered kaffiyeh scarf.

Asked what he was doing walking around town with his AK-47, one young man said: "I am a citizen of Fallujah." Many others said the same.

Abdul al Hadi, a butcher, took a break from work to smoke a cigarette.

"We are living in a horrible dream," al Hadi said. "We can no longer tell our enemies from our friends."

Life, he said, was simpler when the attacks targeted the Americans.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.