Since last year, the city of Muqdadiya had not been considered especially vulnerable. There were shootings and bombings from time to time, but police would round up suspected rebels in nearby villages, as they did last weekend, and haul them to cells in the downtown courthouse.
Then at dawn Tuesday, masked men came to break the detainees out. Descending from a dozen cars and pickup trucks laden with mortars and grenades, they surrounded the judicial compound and blasted away, killing at least 17 policemen and guards and freeing 33 prisoners in one of Iraq’s boldest insurgent raids in months.
The highly coordinated attack, which featured car bombs to repel reinforcements, was a potent reminder of the Sunni-led insurgency’s capacity to strike at Iraqi government and U.S. targets, despite almost constant sweeps against guerrilla forces and President Bush’s frequent assertions of progress in combating the rebellion.
In 90 minutes of fighting, the rebels destroyed 12 police cars and set fire to the courthouse and adjacent police station, holding off outnumbered U.S. and Iraqi forces. Reinforcements, delayed by insurgent booby traps, eventually chased down some of the insurgents, capturing eight as they fled in two vehicles.
Six of the attackers were killed, the U.S. military said, and 18 policemen and two American soldiers were wounded.
With sectarian violence soaring in the last month, U.S. and Iraqi forces had mobilized to prevent a large-scale insurgent attack against the 2 million Shiite Muslim pilgrims who gathered in the southern holy city of Karbala this week to mark the 40th and final day of the annual mourning period for Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed.
Instead, the rebels struck about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, in Muqdadiya, a mostly Sunni city of 200,000. Rebel forces also killed a policeman in Baqubah with a bomb, and fatally shot an American soldier on patrol in western Baghdad.
In an Internet posting, the military wing of the Mujahedin Shura, a Sunni insurgent group, claimed responsibility for the attack in Muqdadiya.
The group is believed to have been active in villages near Samarra, until U.S. and Iraqi forces began a large-scale offensive Thursday to drive them out. Samarra is about 70 miles west of Muqdadiya.
Witnesses in Muqdadiya described a withering shootout and bold defense by the police and guards, who reportedly ran out of ammunition and were overrun on the roof of the jail.
Iraqi police said about 100 insurgents surrounded the municipal compound at 5:45 a.m. and began their assault.
Although frontal raids on police facilities in Sunni regions have not been unusual, Tuesday’s operation was the largest reported in Iraq this year.
Sean Brown, a U.S. army captain, said he saw 20 to 35 insurgents when he arrived later with the 1st Squadron of the 32nd Cavalry.
“They definitely had a coordinated effort to block the headquarters” before attacking it, Brown said after returning to base in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, which encompasses Muqdadiya.
The insurgents seized radio equipment and cut telephone wires, disabling the police network. Even so, Brown said, they came under fire from nine U.S. soldiers who arrived within five minutes in two Bradley fighting vehicles.
Two insurgents were killed in the initial clash, Brown said.
Iraqi army units and a U.S. quick reaction force based near the city were dispatched to help. But they were stalled by the explosions of an insurgent car bomb on the eastern road to the City Hall site and a roadside bomb that disabled an Iraqi convoy at the city’s southern gate.
“They pulled off a very well-planned attack,” Mayor Alewi Farhan told Agence France-Presse. “They used the high building around the police station to get a good position against the reinforcements.” The mayor put the number of attackers at 200.
Two American OH-58A Kiowa helicopters came under small-arms fire as they swooped in to support U.S. ground forces. Shrapnel wounded one of the helicopter pilots in the foot, Brown said, but both helicopters landed safely. Another American soldier suffered a broken arm.
Eventually, Brown said, his platoon arrived with two more Bradleys and three Humvees, joining two Iraqi army platoons in pursuit of the fleeing insurgents.
“There is a hunt out for them,” he said.
Police said at least 18 of the escaped prisoners were rebel suspects rounded up Sunday. The rest were charged with common crimes.
Raad Rasheed Mulla Jawad, the provincial governor, told reporters he thought the attackers had help from collaborators on the police force. The city’s police commander and all other officers who survived the attack were taken into custody for questioning, he said.
Iraqi soldiers cordoned off the city as inhabitants locked themselves inside their homes.
U.S. and Iraqi officials last year said they no longer considered the area an insurgent stronghold. The city has experienced low-intensity shootings and bombings throughout the war, often followed by joint U.S. and Iraqi raids in search of insurgent cells and weapons caches -- a pattern common to other cities in the Sunni heartland of northern and western Iraq.
“They’ve never succeeded in ending the fighting in these cities, and I don’t think they can succeed in Muqdadiya,” said Nabeel Mohammed Salim, a military specialist at Baghdad University. Many insurgents there, he said, are fighting because U.S. forces have killed their relatives. He predicted that they would keep fighting until the Americans withdraw.
“Today’s attack is just one more warning that we face at least another year of serious fighting in the effort to defeat the insurgency,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, an Iraq specialist at the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We have not yet seen either a serious rise in insurgent capability or a serious decrease. Instead, we see cycles of violence, new patterns of attack.”
In an assessment shared by many analysts in Iraq, Cordesman said those cycles would persist until Iraqi political leaders form a government from the parliament elected Dec. 15, and build a coherent national army and police force that can absorb competing sectarian militias.
“It will be late in 2006 at the earliest before a combination of Iraqi military, security and police forces exists that will permit major [American] troop reductions,” Cordesman said.
Worried that the violence is fueled by a vacuum of authority, six U.S. senators prodded interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari in Baghdad on Tuesday to speed up efforts to form a government.
Jafari, a Shiite whose bid to keep his job has stalled negotiations among party leaders, told reporters afterward that he hoped the effort to put together a ruling coalition “does not last beyond April.”
“April is fine,” Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said later at a news conference. “But we need that commitment kept, in order for there to be continuing support for American troops to be kept in Iraq.”
Boudreaux reported from Baghdad and Johnson from Baqubah. Special correspondent Asmaa Waguih and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.