FALLUJAH, Iraq - Heavily armed guerrillas shouting "God is great" launched a brazen assault on Iraqi security compounds yesterday, outgunning Iraqi police, freeing dozens of prisoners and leaving at least 23 dead.
Some of the bloodiest street fighting in Iraq during the 10-month occupation claimed the lives of 17 police officers, four attackers and two civilians. The battle spilled into the dense alleys and markets in the heart of this volatile city west of Baghdad and left another 35 people wounded.
Survivors estimated the number of attackers at 25 to 70, and two of the wounded gunmen were captured.
Police pinned responsibility for the assault on Shiite or Iranian militants. Officials said two of the slain attackers carried Lebanese identification papers.
Some police complained that they lacked the ammunition to beat back the assault and said they had expected U.S. troops stationed on the city's edge to come to their aid.
After months of suicide bombings against Iraqi police, yesterday's attack marked the first coordinated ground assault by guerrillas. The attack on the police station coincided with a strike against a nearby Iraqi Civil Defense Corps compound, though no officers were killed at that heavily barricaded facility. The offensive came at the end of a brutal week that included back-to-back suicide bombings that killed 100 police and army recruits.
The Fallujah civil defense compound had also been attacked two days earlier, just as the U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, was visiting the site. Abizaid, who was unharmed, told reporters that the Iraqi troops appeared to need more training.
Yesterday's attackers employed a large array of machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to rapidly overwhelm the police force. They stormed the compound, tossing grenades and driving survivors into offices, where the officers barricaded the doors and exhausted their ammunition supplies. "It was indescribable," said policeman Mohammed Halil. "Even 60 rounds was not enough. I fired all of them. Then I was obliged to run away."
At the heart of a Sunni-dominated region that holds support for Saddam Hussein, Fallujah has been a frequent site of violence. In April, 13 Iraqis were killed and 75 wounded in a clash with U.S. troops in an incident that set the city on an unsteady course for months to come. A group calling itself Muhammad's Army recently distributed pamphlets warning of dire consequences for anyone cooperating with the occupation.
The attack yesterday left no telltale signs of responsibility.
In an indication of Iraq's mounting sectarian tensions, many in the Sunni town pointed to Shiite militants.
Some surviving officers said they saw tattoos of the words "Ali" or "Hussein" on the bodies of slain attackers, apparently referring to two Shiite imams.
Some officers blamed the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade, a militia backed by a leading Shiite political party. Others insisted the attackers included Lebanese and Iranian gunmen who spoke heavily accented Arabic or Persian.
Still others suggested tribal rivalry could be behind the attack, or even a personal vendetta against the police chief.
"They want to destabilize the situation in order to live without law in this country," officer Essam Sinjan, 30, said from his hospital bed. "They want to show that the police chief is not up to the job."
The attack unfolded with precision. Nearby storeowners were warned not to open yesterday morning, one shopkeeper in Fallujah told an Associated Press reporter.
At 8:30 a.m., just as police were arriving for a training course, gunmen opened fire from at least three positions with AK-47s and grenades.
A mortar round landed in the police station courtyard as shots rang out a half-mile away at the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps compound. There the clash moved out into surrounding streets, where it raged for a half-hour.
"They stacked tires in the road and set them on fire," said Uday Souri Dulame, a security guard near the police station. "It looked like every group of them had a different area to watch."
Inside the station, officer Faram Ibrahim Mohammed, 34, took shrapnel from two grenades before he dragged himself into an office, along with two colleagues.
"I hid myself underneath a desk," he said at Fallujah's hospital, a patchwork of bandages covering his chest and legs. "Then we managed to creep into the little bathroom."
Other officers barricaded the windows with metal lockers, but the gunfire persisted. A civilian who was at the station to complete paperwork was struck in the forehead and died instantly.
Mistaken for dead
Officer Jumaa Mohammed Darwish, 46, found himself in a room with three dead police officers.
He fired his last bullet, he said, and was knocked to the floor by a nearby rocket-propelled grenade strike.
"One of the attackers came into the room and said to his colleague, `I think all these people are dead,'" Darwish said.
The gunmen stormed the police station and blasted open the locks on two large jail cells, holding mostly ordinary criminals. An estimated 60 prisoners escaped, said police Lt. Col. Jalal Sabri Hamis.
Prisoners have been a sore point in Fallujah for months, as U.S. and Iraqi forces round up hundreds of suspected militants. But officers and residents said none of the attackers appeared familiar, and they played down the possibility that relatives or tribesmen would seek to empty the jail.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.