BAGHDAD, Iraq – Guerrillas carried out a series of raids in the city of Samarra (search) on Wednesday, stealing weapons from a police station, blowing it up, and exchanging fire with police and U.S. troops. At least five Iraqis were killed, and the city police chief resigned.
Underscoring security concerns, the Interior Ministry backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's (search) reported proposal to spread elections planned for Jan. 30 over up to three weeks in hopes of allowing people to vote safely. The decision ultimately belongs to Iraq's electoral commission; a top official there said Allawi had not mentioned the idea.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said the number of American combat deaths in Iraq since the start of the war rose to 1,001; the latest reported was a soldier slain by small-arms fire in Baghdad on Tuesday. The total number who have died since March 2003 is 1,281, according to an Associated Press tally.
Insurgents have threatened to target the upcoming vote and already are waging a deadly campaign against security forces and police, killing dozens of people.
The fighting in Samarra, a city 60 miles from Baghdad, began when gunmen stormed a police station, looted its armory and then blew up the building, police said. A policeman and a child standing nearby were killed in clashes before the insurgents fled.
A suicide bomber detonated his explosives-packed car near Bradley fighting vehicles (search) parked outside an American base in Samarra, wounding an Iraqi civilian, and insurgents attacked American forces elsewhere in the city with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. casualties were reported.
At about the same time, American soldiers came under attack by small-arms fire near a traffic intersection, but no one was hurt. The soldiers began checking cars and fired at two vehicles that failed to stop, killing both drivers, the military said.
In violence elsewhere, police clashed with gunmen in the northern city of Mosul, killing four militants. In Ramadi, a Sunni city west of the capital, fighting broke out between insurgents and U.S. troops. A hospital official said three civilians were killed.
Samarra was once overrun by militants, but the U.S. military retook it in September and October. Though violence there has persisted, Iraqi officials have said the city has been an example of how the Americans and the interim government can restore order in communities reclaimed from the insurgents.
Residents, however, say many police in Samarra are refusing to work, fearing insurgents will target them. On Wednesday, Samarra's police chief announced he was resigning; his house was attacked earlier in the day and he said his family had asked him to quit.
"When I felt that I wasn't carrying out my duties as I should, I had to give an opportunity for someone else to carry on," Maj. Gen. Talib Shamel al-Samarrai said.
Resignations of top police officials and continuing assaults on police have raised questions about next month's vote to choose a 275-seat assembly, whose primary task will be drafting a permanent constitution for this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Several political groups representing Sunni Muslims, who make up 20 percent of Iraq's population, are calling for the vote to be postponed.
Allawi was quoted in Belgium's Le Soir newspaper on Tuesday as saying Iraq might consider holding the vote over three weeks to defuse the threat and better protect polling stations.
"Everyone — Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Turkomen — should be able to take part in the vote," he was quoted as telling the newspaper. "That is why I think we can see elections spread over 15 days, or 20."
It was the first time such a proposal had been reported publicly, and drew immediate support from the Interior Ministry, which called it "an excellent idea."
However, the head of the electoral commission, Abdul-Hussein Hendawi, said no one had come to him with the idea. "The commission hasn't been informed of anything in that regard," he said. "We haven't received anything. How can we study it if we haven't received it?"
Also Wednesday, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun made a surprise visit to northern Iraq, where 3,600 South Korean troops are stationed, his office said. And British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon met with British soldiers in the south of the country. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld saw American troops in Kuwait, and was questioned closely about long deployments and a lack of armor.