Insurgents stormed a police station in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 16 policemen in one of the deadliest attacks in weeks. The well-organised assault shows the continuing effectiveness of the resistance forces despite the capture of their headquarters in Fallujah by US Marines last month.
Early yesterday, some 30 masked and heavily armed men opened fire from the roofs of neighbouring houses on al-Amil police station near the airport road in the south of the capital.
"The attack started at 6am," a wounded policeman said in hospital. To conceal his identity, he asked to be referred to only as Mohammed. "I was asleep when it began. They surrounded the police station and opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades at us. They wiped out our men with the heavy machine-gun on the roof. Then they stormed the gate."
The policeman said he and his colleagues, some with only pistols or old Kalashnikovs, were less well-armed than the resistance fighters attacking them. It is a persistent complaint of the Iraqi police that the US has not provided them with bullet-proof vests or modern machine-guns.
Hamid Sabih Akehait, a prisoner at the police station where he had been held for four months accused of receiving stolen goods, says the attackers were masked with balaclavas. They yelled "God is Great" and "There is no God but God" as they overran the defences of the police station. He was wounded in the leg by an explosion.
Mohammed, a tall, well-built man aged 28 years old and in the police for only nine months, said that some of his comrades were killed on the ground floor. "Seven of us, two officers and five privates, retreated upstairs," he told The Independent in al-Yarmouk hospital. "They started to shoot and we shot back but we failed to stop them and had to throw down our guns. They pushed us into a corner and told us to kneel down, then opened fire on us randomly for three minutes."
Mohammed was hit in the forearm by a bullet during the massacre but he lay on the floor pretending to be dead. There was a pause in the firing and then the insurgents started to shoot again. The six other policemen were killed. He heard an insurgent shout, "Withdraw" and half an hour after the first attack the resistance fighters pulled out of the police station.
He said they released some 50 prisoners and left a bomb behind. They also set fire to police cars parked outside.
A third policeman, who also did not want to be identified, was in a patrol car when he had a radio call that al-Amil police station was being attacked. He said: "As soon as we reached the place - we had not even got out of our patrol car - when we were hit by machine-gun fire. I was shot in the left leg and the bone was broken. The driver and my lieutenant were also wounded."
He said the Americans sent a force but they came under fire and they withdrew. Iraqi police patrols also did not dare get too close to the captured police station. A US military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Hutton, said one US Humvee was damaged in the fighting.
This appears to confirm the policeman's story that US forces tried to relieve the police station, then withdrew.
Police stations have been overrun by insurgents before but they have all been in cities and towns outside Baghdad. This is the first time one has been captured in the capital. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the attack on Amil police station on a website. It also said it had wiped out two police patrols in western Baghdad.
In a fresh surge of violence across Iraq yesterday, 14 other people were killed and 19 wounded when a bomb exploded outside the Hameed al-Najar Shia mosque bomb in Baghdad. One US soldier was killed and two wounded by a roadside bomb outside Kirkuk. In the northern city of Mosul, where the 5,000-strong police force disintegrated last month, there were attacks on a US base and two police stations in which 11 guerrillas and one policeman were killed. Some 66 bodies have since been found in Mosul since 18 November. They are believed to have been members of the security forces or supporters of the government.
The ability of the guerrillas to capture a police station in Baghdad shows they are increasingly well-organised. The slow US military response underlines the problem of the US Army not having enough soldiers to control the capital. Many of the 138,000 US troops in Iraq are tied down by lines of supply, the need to defend their bases or convoys or in routine patrols.