FALLUJAH, Iraq – Guerrillas overwhelmed an Iraqi police station west of Baghdad on Saturday, meeting little resistance as they went room to room shooting police in a bold, well-organized assault that killed 23 people and freed dozens of prisoners, officials said.
The fierce, well-coordinated daylight attack in Fallujah (search) — unprecedented in its scale — raised questions whether Iraqi police and defense forces are ready to battle insurgents as the U.S. military pulls back from the fight in advance of the November U.S. presidential election. It also underscored the tenacity of a resistance that continues despite the Dec. 13 arrest of Saddam Hussein (search).
The attack came at the end of a bloody week in which about 100 people were killed in homicide bombings at a police station in Iskandariyah and an army recruiting center in Baghdad. Those attacks and Saturday's Fallujah raid suggest a campaign by insurgents to strike at key institutions of the U.S.-backed Iraqi administration.
Iraqi police stations have frequently been targeted by insurgents before, but not by so many gunmen in such a well-coordinated assault.
Before the attack, the gunmen set up checkpoints and blocked the road leading to the police station, but residents did not notify police, Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim (search) said in Baghdad. Nearby storeowners were warned not to open Saturday morning, one shopkeeper in Fallujah said.
The battle left 17 policemen, two civilians and four attackers dead. At least 37 people — nearly all policemen — were wounded. Two wounded attackers were captured, but the rest escaped.
Police in the Fallujah station complained they had only small arms — nothing larger than an automatic rifle — in the face of dozens of fighters armed with heavy machine guns, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. forces took part in the battle.
One wounded policeman, Qais Jameel, said he heard the attackers speaking a foreign language that he speculated was Farsi. Rumors were circulating that a Shiite Muslim militia with ties to Iran, the Badr Brigade (search), was behind the attack on this Sunni town.
The United States wants the police, civil defense forces and the military to take the front line against the persistent guerrilla war when U.S. administrators hand power over to a new Iraqi government on June 30.
U.S. troops will take a lower profile, pulling out of most towns. But their continued presence in the country would likely mean the insurgency, led by Saddam loyalists and foreign Islamic fighters, also will continue its campaign of violence.
About 300 Iraqi security forces have been killed since they were re-established in May, according to the military. The U.S. military has been organizing the reconstruction of the Iraqi security forces.
The police force has neared its planned goal of 71,000 members. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (search), in charge of internal security, has about 21,000 members and is planned to reach 92,000. The army is recruiting a force of 40,000 soldiers.
In Saturday's attack, about 25 gunmen, some masked and shouting the Islamic slogan, "There is no god but Allah," stormed the police station, witnesses said. At the same time, two dozen more attackers pinned down forces at a nearby compound of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps with a barrage of RPGs and gunfire to keep them from coming to the aid of police, according to the witnesses.
At the police station, attackers broke into the jail, gunned down the guards and shot open the cell doors while others threw grenades in other rooms, said police Lt. Col. Jalal Sabri. Eighty-seven prisoners escaped.
ICDC officer, Daeed Hamed said the assault could have been launched to free two Kuwaitis and a Lebanese captured earlier this week on suspicion of being insurgent fighters. Hamed was unsure if the three foreigners were freed.
No civil defense members were killed — a sign of how better protected their compound was, with concrete walls and sandbag blast barriers, than the police station.
The same compound came under attack only two days earlier by gunmen who opened fire from rooftops with RPGs and automatic weapons as Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, was visiting. Abizaid was unharmed in the attack.
Police said two of the slain gunmen had Lebanese identification papers.
"I suspect (the attackers) were Arabs or Syrians or belonged to al-Qaida. They want to create instability and chaos," Sabri said.
With rumors of Iranian or Iraqi Shiite involvement spreading, some Fallujah men gathered outside the hospital and beat up two men, accusing them of belonging to the Badr Brigade, witnesses said.
In Baghdad, Ibrahim, the deputy interior minister, said recent attacks are aimed at tearing apart Iraqi unity.
"I warn the Iraqi people against a civil war," he said. "They have to unite and leave behind the personal and other interests to preserve Iraq."
U.S. soldiers fended off an attack by gunmen Saturday against their base in Muqdadiyah, 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. Ten attackers were killed, witnesses said.
Also Saturday, demonstrations broke out in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah and the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, where hundreds of angry Iraqis demanded an end to U.S. military raids and searches of their homes.
Carrying placards reading, "Today Demonstrations, Tomorrow Explosions," protesters gathered near a giant American-run prison — built by Saddam — and demanded the release of thousands of Iraqi prisoners.
In Kurdish-majority Sulaimaniyah, thousands of protesters clamored for an independent Kurdish state that includes the three autonomous Kurdish provinces as well as disputed parts of northern Iraq containing a large Arab population.