Assocsited Frnace Press (AFP) 22/3/2006
Iraq rebels kill 18 in assault to free prisoners
MUQDADIYA, Iraq (AFP) - Hundreds of rebels stormed an Iraqi police station in a pre-dawn raid to free inmates, triggering the deadliest firefight this year, which left 18 police and 10 insurgents dead. The Consultative Council of Mujahedeen, an umbrella insurgent grouping led by the Al-Qaeda terror group, claimed responsibility.
President George W. Bush predicted more tough fighting ahead in
Iraq, but said he was convinced the country has avoided civil war.
He refused to say whether American troops would be completely out of Iraq by 2009, when he winds up his tenure in the White House.
The day after Iraq marked the third anniversary of the US-led invasion, army and police commandos were rushed to the town of Muqdadiya northeast of Baghdad to hunt down the large rebel force and recapture the 32 prisoners they freed.
Mayor Alewi Farhan described a sophisticated operation lasting an hour and a half that involved 200 insurgents using an array of weapons.
"The insurgents pulled off a very well-planned attack," he said, describing how a car bomb sealed the eastern road to the site and a roadside bomb blocked the southern road, impeding reinforcements.
When reinforcements were rushed to the town, one commando was killed and another wounded. US forces responding to the attack also reported being ambushed but sustained no casualties.
Officials said at least 18 policemen and guards were killed, along with 10 rebels, in the raid on a compound housing the town’s main police station, courthouse and municipal offices.
Insurgents battled Iraqi and US reinforcements, set fire to the police station, courthouse and 20 police vehicles before making their escape.
The freed detainees were being held on a number of charges, including insurgent activity.
The fighting also left 13 members of the government forces wounded and led to the capture of 16 wounded insurgents.
At a White House press conference Tuesday, Bush dismissed allegations that Iraq was drifting toward civil war after the dynamiting of a Shiite shrine last month triggered a wave of sectarian bloodshed leaving hundreds dead.
"We all recognize that there is violence, that there’s sectarian violence, but the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war," Bush told reporters.
But the president added that containing the violence so that it does not become all-out internal warfare is a top US administration policy.
"The first step is to make sure a civil war doesn’t break out, and that’s why we’re working with the leaders there in Baghdad to form a unity government," Bush said.
Talks among Iraq’s political factions on forming a government have been going on since elections in December, but with little sign of progress.
Bush said preventing sectarian strife from reaching dangerously high levels is central to US plans to foster the development of civil society there.
"Our position is, one, getting a unity government formed and secondly, prepare the Iraqi troops and support Iraqi troops, if need be, to prevent sectarian violence from breaking out," he said.
He said Iraq faces "more tough fighting" before it can succeed in subduing a stubborn insurgency, but said he was encouraged that Iraqi and US forces were "making progress."
"For every act of violence, there is encouraging progress in Iraq that’s hard to capture on the evening news," he said.
Asked whether there will come a day when there would be no more US soldiers in Iraq, Bush said, "That is an objective. That will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."
Pressed to say whether the 133,000 Americans now serving in Iraq would be withdrawn by the time he leaves office in January 2009, Bush again responded by saying: "That’s a timetable. I can only tell you I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say."
A spate of opinion polls in recent weeks have shown support for the war by the US public to be at an all-time low, and with his own popularity flagging.
US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged Monday in an interview with ABC television that three years on, Iraq was in "a particular period of vulnerability" as politicians remain deadlocked over forming a new government three months after parliamentary elections.
"The country is bleeding. Iraqis want their leaders to rise to the occasion, to form a government of national unity," Khalilzad said.
He remained optimistic, however, that a new government would be formed in the coming weeks.
A delegation of US senators visiting the country told reporters that Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari had said a government would be ready in April.
In other developments, seven bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered in Baghdad and north of the capital, security sources said.
A court martial found a US military dog handler guilty of assaulting and maltreating detainees at the notorious
Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
Sergeant Michael Smith was also found guilty of dereliction of duty and conspiracy to mistreat prisoners and could now face a jail term as well as a dishonourable discharge.
And British Prime Minister
Tony Blair called in a London speech for a global struggle for "values and progress", centred on Iraq and
Afghanistan, to confront and defeat the spectre of violent Islamist extremism.
"What happens in Iraq or Afghanistan today is not just crucial for the people in those countries or even in those regions, but for our security here and around the world."