Six days to the handover, Iraqi insurgents kill 85
Iraqi insurgents launched their first co-ordinated offensive yesterday, storming police stations and government buildings in attacks that left more than 85 dead and 320 wounded.
Six days before the return of sovereignty to a US-appointed Iraqi government, American forces were fighting desperately to regain control of cities ringing Baghdad.
In a chilling show of strength, the insurgents demonstrated that they have the military power and co-ordination to make attacks across the Sunni Arab heartlands of Iraq from Mosul to Baghdad. The strikes were mostly aimed at the lightly armed Iraqi police, who suffered serious losses.
The heaviest fighting was in Baquba, 35 miles north-east of Baghdad, where US aircraft dropped three 500lb bombs as American tanks and infantry engaged resistance fighters in the centre of the city. Earlier the insurgents had captured two police stations, killing four policemen and two US soldiers.
Casualties flooded into Baquba hospital. One man screamed: "May God destroy America and all who co-operate with it." Another shouted: "Oh God, Abbas is dead", and carried the body of a young man with a bullet hole in the back of his head out of his car into the hospital. Many of the fighters in Baquba were Islamic militants wearing yellow headbands saying they belonged to the Battalions of Unification and Holy War. They handed out leaflets warning Iraqis not to collaborate with Americans. "The flesh of collaborators is tastier than that of Americans," the leaflets said. As helicopters swooped low over Baquba people flew white sheets from their cars to show that they were not part of the guerrilla forces.
Insurgents were later holding out in palm groves around the city.
The worst casualties were in the northern city of Mosul where seven car bombs killed 44 people, including many policemen and one US soldier, and wounded 216. A curfew was declared from 9pm to 6am.
In the city of Ramadi a volley of rocket-propelled grenades struck the central police station. "We were inside the al-Qatana station ... it was attacked from all round," said Lieutenant Ahmed Sami. In all, nine policemen were killed and another 27 wounded.
The heart of the rebellion over the past year has been the middle Euphrates region, west of Baghdad. Since April, when US Marines besieged but failed to capture Fallujah, the area has been largely under insurgent control. As the Marines fought a fierce battle yesterday in the dusty suburbs of the city a US Cobra helicopter was brought down by ground fire but the crew were safe. The Marines said their action was purely defensive.
The insurgents evidently want to undermine from the beginning any hope that the incoming Iraqi interim government might be able to quell the guerrilla war by strengthening the Iraqi security forces.
The US is to hand over power to the government on 30 June but Iyad Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, will be reliant on 138,000 US troops as well as American money.
Mr Allawi said defiantly yesterday that the attacks aimed to foil the democratic process, but, he added: "We are going to defeat them. We are going to crush them."
Elaborate plans are to be put in train to raise a large Iraqi counter-insurgency force though it became apparent during the uprising in April that Iraqi troops did not want to fight other Iraqis. Elections are planned for next January.
The fighting yesterday and other attacks over the past few weeks show that the police and paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defence Corps are not able to stand up to the increasingly well-planned assaults of the guerrillas. In some cases they co-operated with the insurgents.
The problem for the US is that the interim government is seen by many Iraqis as a pawn of the occupation, which they believe will continue under another name.
The insurgents also seem to be changing their tactics. In the past they have inflicted most casualties on the US forces by lethal roadside bombs.
But yesterday they appeared able to mobilise larger numbers of fighters than had been seen previously.
The insurgency is based in the rural Sunni Arab communities and has not been able to launch many ground attacks in Baghdad.
A suicide bomber blew himself up yesterday at a checkpoint in the south of the city called Abu Dasheer, killing four Iraqi army personnel and three civilians.
Three US soldiers were seen tending another wounded American soldier as he lay in the road, his helmet lying alongside him. A pick-up truck was blazing near by, sending up clouds of smoke.
Four police stations have also been assaulted with grenades, mortars and AK-47s in the past two days but none of them were captured.
Overall the insurgents showed yesterday that the war was not going to end because of the handover of power to the interim government and it is the US troops who will have to do most of the fighting.