Shelling by rebels kills 22 detainees

Possible motives: Kill U.S. troops, spark uprising

April 21, 2004|By Tony Perry, Said Rifai and Jeffrey Fleishman | Tony Perry, Said Rifai and Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq - Insurgents fired mortars at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad yesterday, killing 22 detainees and injuring nearly 100 others in another grisly attack that appeared aimed at U.S. forces along one of the nation's most dangerous highways.

The prison holds hundreds of suspected insurgents and anti-coalition collaborators and symbolizes the anger many Iraqis feel toward the American occupation.

U.S. officials said 18 mortars were fired toward the prison guarded by American troops, some of the shells landing amid a tent camp inside the walls where detainees were eating lunch. No American casualties were reported.

The prison sits off the highway toward Fallujah - a perilous stretch of road from which insurgents have ambushed U.S. convoys and snatched hostages.

Dotted with the burned shells of military trucks and often marked by coiling black smoke, the highway also was flecked yesterday with residents returning to Fallujah as a tentative cease-fire continued in a two-week standoff between insurgents and U.S. Marines.

Rumsfeld skeptical

However, in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that the current truce would not continue indefinitely and said he did not believe that the negotiations are likely to lead to a solution.

"Thugs and assassins and former Saddam henchmen will not be allowed to carve out portions of that city and to oppose peace and freedom," Rumsfeld said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell phoned "almost all" the members of the U.S.-led coalition to probe their commitment to remain in Iraq after Spain's announcement this week that it planned to withdraw its troops.

Honduras also announced it would withdraw its soldiers, and Thailand said it would withdraw if its troops are attacked.

Last night, following the lead of Spain and Honduras, the Dominican Republic announced it, too, would pull its troops out of Iraq early, in the next few weeks.

Although President Hipolito Mejia had pledged two days ago to keep the country's 302 troops in Iraq until their one-year commitment ended in August, Gen. Jose Miguel Soto Jimenez said the president changed course based on security concerns for Dominican soldiers after Honduras announced its troops would be pulled back early.

Repeated attacks

The mortar explosions at Abu Ghraib turned the prison grounds to chaos as Black Hawk helicopters flew the wounded to hospitals.

"This isn't the first time we've seen this kind of attack," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told Associated Press radio. "We don't know if they're trying to inspire an uprising or a prison break."

Insurgents have been firing at the prison for months because of the high concentration of American troops patrolling the site.

One prison employee said: "We heard the first explosion, it was approximately 1 p.m. and then people started shouting `Allah Akbar' [God is great]."

Farther west, on the outskirts of Fallujah, where homes and streets have been battered in some of the worst fighting since the war began, residents who had fled a week earlier filed through two Marine checkpoints on their way home.

Twenty families of 10 members each were allowed back into Fallujah. In a deal struck Monday by U.S. officials and local leaders aimed at preventing another Marine offensive, Iraqi police officers returned to work and insurgents were supposed to turn in their heavy weapons.

U.S. officials including Rumsfeld were skeptical that the truce - called after more than 700 Iraqis and dozens of Marines were killed in fighting in the days after the slaying and mutilation of four U.S. contractors - would hold.

"We are very serious about a peaceful resolution to the situation in Fallujah," said Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority. "But everybody must recognize that in the absence of a true cease-fire, major hostilities will return on short notice."

Checkpoint puzzle

At a checkpoint near what the United States calls the "Brooklyn Bridge," Marines eyed returning residents and were left to puzzle at who belonged to what family and who might be pretending to be a family member in order to slip into Fallujah to join the insurgents.

Several young men were detained as possible insurgents.

"I could use another translator," said Pfc. Cody Blaylock, 19, of San Angelo, Texas, as the line began to stretch 100 yards or more and patience began to melt in the midday sun.

Once a quota had been filled, Marines explained to those in line that they would have to return at 6 a.m.

Marine officials expect the lines to form earlier and at greater length as word spreads among the displaced that Fallujah appears to be returning to a modicum of normality, even if the possibility of more fighting looms.

"We need to return to our homes and see if our families are still alive," said Salem Thiech, as he waited in line. "We are worried."

If the insurgents do not relinquish their weapons, U.S. officials warned, offensive operations could resume. Three battalions of Marines have encircled the city and remain ready for combat.

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