At least 50 people, most of them Iraqi policemen, were killed in a wave of explosions and gunfire Saturday and early today northwest of Baghdad, as insurgents sent a message that efforts by the U.S. military to quash them last month had fallen short.
The violence in Samarra and Haditha might be a harbinger of the kind of attacks insurgents will launch when U.S. Marines open their planned offensive in the rebel city of Fallouja in coming days. U.S. diplomats, military officials and many Iraqis are girding for a rash of suicide bombings, shootings and mortar and rocket attacks throughout the Sunni Muslim-dominated areas of the country.
Reports are circulating among Iraqi and U.S. officials that large numbers of insurgents have left the Fallouja area in anticipation of the coming invasion. The militants are reportedly fanning out to other cities in the Sunni Triangle, where they will stage diversionary attacks -- and underscore that despite an expected defeat for insurgent forces in Fallouja, the rebel movement remains strong.
U.S. forces are poised to advance into Fallouja, where an estimated 1,000 to 6,000 insurgents, a mix of Saddam Hussein loyalists, Sunni Islamists and non-Iraqi supporters of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, are holed up. The Marines are waiting for a signal from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and President Bush to begin the attack.
“There will be horrific events outside Fallouja,” said a senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I would never tell you that violence in Sunni areas won’t get worse when you open up a battle.”
He added that officials expected that period to last “not many weeks.”
“You will have a shortish period when everybody will say the whole country’s falling apart ... but they will not be able to maintain that tempo.”
The violence began Saturday in Samarra, where at least 30 people were killed. The bombings and fighting there appeared to have been coordinated, although U.S. Army spokesman Capt. Bill Coppernoll described them as “all in all, not as coordinated as they [the insurgents] liked it to be.”
A group led by Zarqawi reportedly claimed responsibility for the Samarra attacks, which came a month after U.S. military officials declared victory in their operation to rout the insurgents in the city. After that siege, which ended with moderate damage and relatively light casualties, U.S. officials touted the battle as a model for quelling the insurgency in Iraq.
“What has to be done in that country is what basically was done in Samarra,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said after the operation.
The violence in Samarra began when a joint U.S. and Iraqi patrol spotted a suspected car bomb near the mayor’s office, fired on it and saw it explode, according to a statement from the 1st Infantry Division’s Public Affairs office. An Iraqi national guard checkpoint is near the mayor’s office.
The vehicle appeared to be a stolen Iraqi police truck, according to the statement.
Almost simultaneously, mortar rounds rained on a Samarra police station, killing three policemen and wounding nine.
Half an hour later, another car bomb exploded near a joint Iraqi and U.S. patrol on the eastern side of the city. The blast injured four soldiers from the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s special police force, said the 1st Infantry Division public affairs officer.
The next blast occurred at midday, when a suicide bomber rammed a car into a police station, killing 10 Iraqi police officers and wounding five, police and witnesses said.
Witnesses said that U.S. troops in the city opened fire after the explosions and that there was chaos in the city center as bullets flew. Ambulances were unable to evacuate the victims immediately because of the danger, they said.
In all, 11 civilians and 19 police officers were killed in the day’s violence in Samarra, Reuters reported. It was unclear how the civilians and some of the police officers died.
Residents said the U.S. military had declared a curfew that started at midday. Shaken residents fled the town, some joining family members who had already gone to the countryside.
Ziad Ismail, 35, a Samarra native who owns a pastry shop here, said that he was struggling to get to his family members whom he had sent to Al Dor on the other side of the Tigris but that American soldiers had closed the bridge and were shooting people who tried to use small boats to cross the river.
“I was able to hear sporadic gunfire on the streets, probably clashes between the U.S. forces and resistance fighters,” he said. “Otherwise, the city is a ghost town, all the shops are closed, and there aren’t any pedestrians.”
Ismail added that he saw Iraqi soldiers patrolling with U.S. forces as he left town. “There were also masked resistance fighters as I was making my way out of the city,” he said.
Early today, insurgents took their campaign to Haditha, killing 20 police officers in a brazen dawn attack on the well-fortified police headquarters in the town, 85 miles west of Samarra.
“We received 20 bodies this morning,” said Ayad Ghazi, assistant director of Haditha Hospital.
According to Hassan Harrat, Haditha police chief, the police compound is protected by concrete barriers and watchtowers. Many of the police are from the Jughaifi tribe, who for centuries were Bedouins. The U.S. military relied on them heavily in forming the force.
Harrat said 15 to 20 insurgents swept into the compound in the gray dawn light, first killing the officers in the watchtowers, then rushing through the gardens that surround the building and shooting police who were sleeping or waiting in common rooms to go on duty.
The attacks in Samarra and Haditha came as U.S. forces bombed Fallouja in one of the heaviest assaults in recent memory, residents said. A warehouse used by the Fallouja Hospital to store medicine and surgical supplies was badly damaged, witnesses said.
In other violence in the Sunni Triangle, a car bomb targeting a U.S. Marine convoy wounded 20 troops in Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad. Hospital staff members said at least one Iraqi was killed and 14 wounded in clashes between rebels and U.S. forces.
In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near a U.S. military convoy on the main airport road Saturday, killing an Iraqi bystander and wounding three American soldiers, the military said. An Iraqi civilian also was seriously wounded. The road has been under attack almost daily for the last couple of months.
Meanwhile Saturday, a Sudanese hostage was released, and the body of a second kidnapped Sudanese was found near Ramadi, according to news service reports.
Rubin reported from Baghdad and Salman from Samarra. Times staff writer Salar Jaff in Baghdad and a Times special correspondent in Fallouja contributed to this report.