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Iraq: Attacks Growing Bolder, Better Organized

The most audacious assault yet on local security forces in Iraq took place on 14 February. In a highly organized attack conducted in broad daylight, assailants killed more than 20 people and freed prisoners during a raid on a police station in the Sunni Triangle town of Al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad. Al-Qaeda and Hussein loyalists are both being blamed for the raid, but ultimately it remains unclear who is behind the recent wave of deadly attacks on security forces.

Prague, 16 February 2004 (RFE/RL) – The raid on the Al-Fallujah police station was the most sophisticated attack on Iraqi security forces since the announcement of the end of “major combat” operations in May.

Police at the station were caught unaware and underequipped when a group of nearly 50 men wearing masks stormed the building, freeing a number of prisoners, shooting mortar rounds and spraying the rooms with automatic-rifle fire.

The attack left more than 20 policemen dead. Ibrahim Muhammad, who was injured in the raid, says the attack caught him and his fellow officers completely by surprise.

There are nearly 200 mosques in Al-Fallujah and surrounding villages, and since the beginning of the U.S. campaign residents have resented the presence of foreign soldiers in what they call the "holy city of mosques."
"At 8:30 a.m. (0530 GMT), as we were about to go on patrol to set up checkpoints, we suddenly felt shooting from in front [of the building] and behind, so we dispersed and took positions near the fence."

The assailants later went from room to room, lobbing hand grenades. Five of the gunmen were reportedly killed or injured, but the rest escaped unharmed and unidentified. The coordination and efficiency of the deadly raid has prompted several theories about who was behind the attack. Al-Qaeda has been named as a possible culprit, as have the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah and the Kurdish Ansar Al-Islam.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, told the American ABC television network he believed the attackers had come from outside Iraq. At least one of the attackers killed in the raid was a Lebanese-born Iraqi citizen.

The U.S. military says the tactics used in the Al-Fallujah attack do not resemble those of Al-Qaeda or other known terrorist groups. A U.S. military official, speaking to the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity, said a group skilled in “small-unit tactics” conducted the raid.

These “would not be the same tactics that Al-Qaeda would employ," the official said. "These are military tactics. It points to former military members."

There is no shortage of such people in Al-Fallujah. The town, located at the heart of the Sunni Triangle, is home to many former Ba'ath Party officials and military officers loyal to the Hussein regime. AFP cites the U.S. military official as saying, "We keep bumping into former generals and colonels in Fallujah. We see them every day."

But could local Hussein loyalists have organized the raid? Yahia Said of the London School of Economics and Political Science says yes -- but not without the support of a large part of the local population.

"My instinct on these events, on activities like that in Fallujah in particular, is that these are a combination of Saddam Hussein remnants -- or, if you like, more precisely, disgruntled local Fallujah citizens, unhappy with the [U.S.-led] occupation, being organized by some remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime."

Al-Fallujah has long been at the heart of the anti-American resistance. The enmity started as early as late April, when jittery U.S. soldiers shot dead 15 Iraqis protesting the U.S. presence at a local school. The town is a center of both deep tribal alliances and Sunni religious life. There are nearly 200 mosques in Al-Fallujah and surrounding villages, and since the beginning of the U.S. campaign residents have resented the presence of foreign soldiers in what they call the "holy city of mosques."

But U.S. forces left Al-Fallujah after striking an agreement with local authorities. And this attack targeted not foreign soldiers, but local residents. Said says the raid may spur a cycle of revenge killings, which in turn could weaken local support for the anti-American resistance.

"This time, of course, if the killing of Iraqis continues, it may actually dampen support -- or, if you like, tacit nonopposition -- by the citizens of Al-Fallujah to the resistance. So, it may actually work against them."

Reports from Fallujah seemed to support the prediction. Only hours after the raid, armed men, reportedly seeking revenge, gathered outside the hospital where the injured assailants were being kept.

RFE/RL correspondent Sami Alkhoja says in Baghdad rumors are circulating that Americans were responsible for orchestrating the raid. Many Iraqis believe the Americans hope to scuttle the upcoming elections and assure that the U.S.-led coalition does not hand over power to local authorities anytime soon. Alkhoja says the absence of U.S. forces in Fallujah has only heightened suspicions among those Iraqis who say the U.S. was responsible for last week's attacks in Iskandariya and Baghdad as well.

"We have exactly the same thing in Fallujah happening," he said. "There were about 40 fighters, let's say, attacking this police station. [It] took them lots of time to do [the job] -- release the prisoners. And there were no signs of Americans."

Such theories will only heighten many Iraqis' desire for elections to be held soon. But Yahia Said says to the contrary, the week's string of attacks are only likely to convince Western observers that the situation is too chaotic to proceed with the vote.