US blames 'foreign fighters' for raid
IRAQI police and coalition forces were still counting the cost yesterday of the most daring guerrilla raid since the end of the war, in which 22 Iraqi police officers died and scores of prisoners were freed.
The United States administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, yesterday blamed "foreign fighters" for Saturday’s raid on Fallujah. But one of his own military officials disagreed, claiming the co-ordinated attack pointed to crack former members of Saddam Hussein’s military.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi police who remained in the restless town called for protection from local tribal leaders, saying they were ill-equipped by the coalition to fight such well armed militants.
Saturday’s assault involved groups of guerrillas deftly mounting simultaneous operations - pinning down civil defence forces on one side of Fallujah while raiding the jail on the other, storming Fallujah’s police headquarters, civil defence building and mayor’s office in the process.
The raid showed careful preparation: Fallujah’s shopkeepers were warned before the assault to close their shops. Significantly, the merchants’ warning never reached the police. Nor did anyone tip off police about the checkpoints set up by the insurgents to seal off the area.
"This was something put together by people with knowledge of small-unit tactics," a US military official in Baghdad said. "It was a complex, well co-ordinated attack. This would not be the same tactics that al-Qaeda would employ. These are military tactics. It points to former military members."
When it was over, stunned Iraqi police and security forces who survived insisted the attackers - or some of them - were foreigners. Some said they heard rebels speaking an unintelligible language. Others said they had left behind Shiite Muslim paraphernalia.
Two fighters killed in the battle were said to be carrying Lebanese identity papers.
Rumours spread in Fallujah that an Iraqi Shiite Muslim militia with links to Iran, the Badr Brigade, was to blame.
However, the US military officer discounted those statements.
Such a complex undertaking involving separate bands of co-ordinated troops points to local Iraqis with intimate knowledge of Fallujah’s terrain and residents. "The likelihood of outsiders coming in and doing that is very slim," the official said.
However, Mr Bremer insisted on ABC television yesterday that fighters from outside Iraq took part in the deadly daylight attack.
He said that while it was too early to know who planned and carried out the assault, "we’ve had a pattern of suicide bombing over the last three or four months that exactly fits the strategy that’s been outlined by an al-Qaeda terrorist here named Zarqawi".
Mr Bremer said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of carrying out some of the most deadly bombings in Iraq, is "basically trying to set up a sectarian war here, a civil war, and those suicide bombings were certainly consistent with his strategy".
Two hospitals in Fallujah said 22 police, one civilian and four attackers were killed in Saturday’s raid. At least 35 people were wounded. Police said 20 to 85 prisoners escaped during the attack.
Iraqi police who remained in Fallujah wondered aloud yesterday if they could ever take over security from US troops.
"All we have are these AK-47 rifles. The gunmen who attacked us threw grenades and fired mortars at us," said policeman Ahmed Shabaan. "How can we defend ourselves when the Americans don’t allow us to use heavy weapons?"
No American troops came to the police’s rescue on Saturday.
"There are no Americans around us in Fallujah. They only come around to make sure we don’t have any heavy weapons in the station," said one police officer. "So now we are asking tribal leaders to provide us with protection and weapons."
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