BAGHDAD, Iraq—Arab insurgents fired a fusillade of mortars on the coalition-controlled Abu Ghraib Prison on Tuesday, killing 22 Iraqi captives held in razor-wire-ringed tent camps and wounding 92 others.
The attack was puzzling to U.S. military commanders, who consider the 4,400 so-called "security detainees" to be anti-American insurgents, some of whom are suspected of launching similar mortar and missile attacks.
Marines helped evacuate wounded prisoners. Twenty-five of the most seriously injured were taken by helicopter to two U.S. military field hospitals, one of which is inside the Green Zone, which houses coalition headquarters.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy commander of operations, said the attackers may have intended to hit their comrades either to trigger an uprising or to intimidate them against cooperating with their interrogators.
"Our guys scratch their heads and say, `Why would they be shelling their own people, killing their own people?'" Kimmitt said several hours after the attack.
In all, 18 mortar rounds slammed into the prison compound, which, until little over a year ago, served as a torture and execution center for Saddam Hussein's regime. U.S. officials reopened it last year, and it's come under frequent mortar attack.
Tuesday's was the heaviest mortar barrage yet at Abu Ghraib, and it came on the same day that Marines instituted several goodwill gestures to try to restore order in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah.
Also Tuesday, another American soldier died in a guerrilla ambush on a U.S. military column. A bomb exploded under a convoy west of the northern Iraqi town of Mosul in the morning, wounding five Task Force Olympia soldiers, one of whom died at a combat support hospital.
In Fallujah, U.S. forces waiting for insurgents to surrender their weapons eased a nighttime curfew by two hours and let about 50 families who'd fled the battles between Marines and insurgents return to their homes. Fighting has raged off and on in the city of 250,000 this month.
Marines laid siege to the city in their bid to smoke out an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 resistance fighters thought to include Saddam loyalists and Arab foreigners. A group of Sunni Muslim sheiks have tried to mediate through talks with civic leaders in Fallujah, Iraqi Governing Council members and other coalition contacts.
"We are very serious about a peaceful resolution. But everybody must recognize that, in the absence of a true cease-fire, major hostilities will return on short notice," said senior coalition adviser Dan Senor.
The relief measures are expected to include safe passage for people from Fallujah to bury their dead in a huge cemetery in Abu Ghraib. They are now believed to be interred in a soccer field in the city.
The shaky cease-fire seemed to be holding. Marines came under fire from Fallujah only once overnight Monday, commanders said, and the coalition is trying to return Iraqi police to their city posts.
An uncertain standoff also seemed to hold in the southern Shiite Muslim city of Najaf, where the U.S. military reported no overnight attacks on coalition forces by Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Coalition forces are on the outskirts of the shrine city, while Mahdi Army forces still dominate there and in adjacent Kufa.
An Iraqi mediator was bound for Baghdad Tuesday night to brief U.S. authorities on a daylong meeting with al-Sadr, and there was a hopeful sign: Al-Sadr aides canceled a daily news conference that's become a platform to air anti-American grievances, suggesting there may be progress in the talks.
While determined to arrest al-Sadr and disband his militia, American military commanders are eager to avoid bloodshed in the holy Shiite city. They pulled back some of their 2,500 3rd Brigade Task Force troops on Tuesday and camped outside, awaiting more forces due by the weekend.
In other developments Tuesday:
_ U.S. military officials said Honduras' decision to withdraw 370 forces along with the pullout of 1,374 Spanish troops would be "a manageable military problem" for the coalition that currently has some 155,000 multinational forces, most of which are Americans. The withdrawal would leave only El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in the so-called Spanish Brigade outside Najaf. But late Tuesday, the Dominican Republic said it would pull out its soldiers, which number about 300. The Salvadorans are expected to leave in late July, when their tour ends.
_Pentagon contractor Halliburton identified three of its employees as among four bodies recovered this month near Abu Ghraib. The men were among seven contractors killed or carried off in an April 9 guerrilla attack that obliterated a fuel convoy in a huge plume of flames. The fourth, described as "a foreign national," hasn't been identified.
_The U.S.-led coalition acknowledged that U.S. soldiers on Monday shot and killed an Iraqi correspondent and driver as they drove up to a base south of Tikrit. The two, who were working for the U.S.-funded TV channel al Iraqiyah, had been seen earlier filming an Iraqi police checkpoint and were shot after they drove on despite warning shots.
(Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from Najaf, Iraq.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.