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Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - Page updated at 01:38 A.M.

Insurgents spread chaos, step up strikes on police

By Seattle Times news services

YAHYA AHMED / AP
Firefighters try to contain an oil-pipeline fire yesterday after an attack by insurgents near Beiji, north of Baghdad, Iraq. The attack triggered a chain reaction in power-generation systems that left the country without power.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Stepping up a campaign that has killed nearly 140 Iraqis in three days, insurgents yesterday launched coordinated strikes on police in Baghdad and nearby Baqouba and knocked out power across the country for much of the day.

The attacks, which left 59 people dead, reflect the intensifying struggle between insurgents and the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government, marking the second time in barely 48 hours that insurgents mounted punishing strikes in the center of the nation's capital.

The military said yesterday that three U.S. soldiers were killed and eight wounded in separate attacks in Iraq in the past 24 hours.

In recognition of the growing threats, from Sunni and Shiite assailants, the Bush administration said yesterday that it is shifting nearly $3.5 billion from Iraq reconstruction funds to short-term expenditures, primarily for security.

In Cairo, Egypt, the head of the Arab League warned that "the gates of hell are open in Iraq and the situation is getting more complicated and tense." Amr Moussa appealed to Arab countries "to help Iraq to overcome this crisis."

The mounting attacks aim to wreck the centerpiece of the U.S. plan for defeating the militants: building a strong Iraqi security force able to bring some calm before elections scheduled for January. Doing so is also a key prerequisite for any withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The prospect of majority rule in a country that is 60 percent Shiite presents a threat to many in the Sunni minority, which represents about 20 percent of the population but has held a privileged position in Iraq since the time of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1300-1918.

The car bomb that ripped through a market near the western headquarters of the Baghdad police, exploded near where Iraqis were shopping and cafes where men applying for the police force were sipping tea and escaping the summer heat as they waited to sign up at the nearby western Baghdad police headquarters.

The Health Ministry reported that 47 Iraqis were killed and 114 more wounded in the blast in Baghdad.

The Tawhid and Jihad group, headed by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, posted a Web statement claiming responsibility for the car bombing. The al-Qaida-linked group launched a surprise assault in Baghdad on Sunday, killing dozens, and boasted it had the upper hand in the fight against the Americans.

Crowds at the scene of the Baghdad explosion pumped their fists in the air and directed their anger against the United States and President Ayad Allawi for failing to protect the station even though police-recruiting points have repeatedly been attacked.

"Such places were targeted before," said Ali Abul-Amir, who had been waiting to join the police force. "I blame Ayad Allawi's government for what happened because they did not take the necessary security measures."

Some directed their anger at the militants.

"Such acts cannot be considered part of the resistance [against U.S. forces]. This is not a jihad, they are not mujahedeen," said Amir Abdel Hassan, a teacher. "Iraq is not a country, it's a big graveyard."

In Baqouba, 12 officers returning from training in Jordan were killed when someone ambushed their bus.

Also yesterday, clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents killed at least eight civilians and wounded 18 in Ramadi, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city west of the capital where anti-U.S. sentiments are high.

In Mosul yesterday, one U.S. soldier was killed and five were wounded when their patrol was attacked with small-arms fire, according to a statement released by the military.

Further highlighting the chaotic situation, saboteurs blew up a junction where a series of oil pipelines cross the Tigris River near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. The ensuing fire melted high-voltage transmission lines, causing a shutdown of a nearby power station and taking down the national electrical grid at 3 a.m., according to a statement released by Electricity Minister Aiham Al-Sammarae.

By late afternoon, power had been restored to about 30 percent of normal levels, al-Sammarae said.

The precise selection of targets — a car bomb timed as police applicants assembled and sabotage of a critical juncture in the electrical grid — showed insurgents are capable of sophisticated attacks.

U.S. troops, meanwhile, have retaken areas held by insurgents in recent days. U.S. forces peacefully retook Tal Afar early Sunday, saying it had been cleared of insurgents after fierce clashes with insurgents had closed off the city.

And last week, after reaching an agreement with local leaders, U.S. forces entered Samarra, north of Baghdad, for the first time since late May. The city has been a stronghold of Sunni rebels.

U.S. forces have stepped up their campaign against Sunni insurgents, with warplanes making nightly bombing runs on suspected safe houses in rebel-held Fallujah.

Families in one neighborhood said Iraqi armed forces were moving through the streets with loudspeakers, urging residents to flee by today at noon and warning they expect fighting to intensify.

U.S. and Iraqi leaders have made it clear they intend to regain control of Fallujah and other cities under insurgents' control, by negotiation or force.

U.S. commanders have said they are stepping up the training and arming of Iraq's security forces.

The U.S. military has been training Iraqi police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps members for more than 18 months. But over the summer, the Army officer formerly in charge of training, Maj. Gen. Paul Easton, acknowledged that misguided U.S. methods had wasted almost a year.

The forces' weakness were highlighted in April, when police largely abandoned their stations in the face of an uprising by Shiite militiamen in Baghdad and southern cities. When the militia rose up again last month, U.S. forces did most of the fighting.

Iraqi police on duty numbered 31,300 in July, the last month for which figures are available. That is down from 90,803 in May. Some were sent for retraining, some were killed and others were removed for supporting the insurgency.

Attacks on Iraqi security forces and police officers have killed hundreds of people in the 17 months since insurgents began their campaign to expel U.S.-led forces.

From April 2003 to May 2004, 710 Iraqi police were killed of a total force of 130,000 officers, authorities said.

Since May, at least 180 more people have been killed in attacks targeting police facilities. Insurgents also have kept up a steady drumbeat of smaller attacks on police checkpoints and police officials.

Thus far, however, the attacks have not stopped young Iraqi men from seeking jobs as policemen.

"There are no other jobs," said a police officer at the scene of yesterday's bombing who gave his name as Hussein. "Joining the police and the army is the only choice."

Compiled from Chicago Tribune,

The Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers, The Washington Post

and Gannett News Service.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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