BAGHDAD (AP) – U.S. troops battled Iraqi police suspected of links to Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, killing six in a rare firefight between American soldiers and their Iraqi partners. Friday’s clash underscored the deep infiltration of militants in the country’s security forces.
The battle came a day after the Bush administration acknowledged that the Iraqi government was making “unsatisfactory” progress in its efforts to purge the police force of Shiite militia – among the elusive benchmarks Washington believes are needed to stabilize the country.
Shiite militias have considerable power within police ranks, prompting many Sunni Arabs to shun the force. Sunnis accuse the police of helping – or participating in – death squads that have slain thousands of members of their sect.
In addition to the six police officers, seven gunmen were also killed in Friday’s clash in eastern Baghdad, sparked when U.S. troops arrested a police lieutenant, the American military said in a statement. It said the lieutenant was believed to be helping Iran organize Shiite militants and leading a cell involved in bomb and mortar attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops.
The U.S. military has accused Iran of arming Shiite extremists drawn from the ranks of militias and organizing them into a network to carry out attacks on the troops. Friday’s statement, however, was the first time the military has spoken of the Iranian efforts extending into the Iraqi police. It was unclear whether the lieutenant was a militiaman who joined the police or a policeman who later joined the militia.
American forces have arrested police in the past for Shiite militia links – but rarely have the Americans and the uniformed police fallen into an open street battle, particularly one as fierce as Friday’s.
It began before dawn when U.S. troops launched a raid and captured the lieutenant, according to a military statement. The troops quickly came under heavy fire from multiple directions, including nearby rooftops and a church. “Heavy and accurate” fire was also coming from a nearby police checkpoint.
As the Americans fought back, U.S. warplanes struck in front of the police position, without hitting it directly, “to prevent further escalation” of the battle. There were no casualties among the U.S. troops, but seven gunmen and six of the policemen firing on the Americans were killed, the statement said.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which controls the police, said he had no immediate information on the clash and refused to comment.
Over the past year, the government has removed several thousand policemen accused of militia links and has tightened the vetting process for recruits.
Still, its efforts have been insufficient, according to Thursday’s report by the Bush administration, which acknowledged only spotty progress on the 18 benchmarks Washington is seeking.
Top Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi said the government has not taken the purging of police seriously enough. “We hope that they will be sincere in cleansing the police force and the army of those who work for Iran’s interests. They are a danger to everyone, the political process and the Americans,” he said.
The captured lieutenant was a “high-ranking” leader of a cell suspected of helping coordinate Iranian support for Shiite extremists, the military said. He was also believed to be linked to the Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards that the U.S. military says it funneling help to the networks, a charge Tehran denies.
The double loyalties of many policemen weaken the force because it undermines public trust in them. The U.S. military is counting on the police – along with the Iraqi army – to provide security in areas which American troops clear of militants. Despite four years of efforts to train the force, U.S. commanders acknowledge it is often outmatched by insurgents.
U.S. forces have been waging a nearly month-old security crackdown in Baghdad and in areas to the north and south of the capital, seeking to uproot Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. The sweeps have dislodged militants from a section of the city of Baqouba, to the northwest, and have brought a relative easing of attacks in the capital.
Still, Baghdad remains far from calm.
On Friday, gunmen with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades blasted guard towers outside the Interior Ministry in central Baghdad, killing five guards and wounding nine, a police official said.
A volley of at least four mortars were also fired from the city’s dangerous southern districts at the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located. The mortars hit near the home of a senior Iraqi military official, killing two Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi army official said.
Police found the bodies of six people – three men and two women in their late 20s and an 11-year-old girl – dumped in an empty lot in the Sadiyah district of southwestern Baghdad, another police official said. They were all blindfolded and bound, with gunshots to the head.
They were not immediately identified but appeared to be victims of sectarian slayings that still leave 20 to 30 bodies a day around the city. The army and police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the press.
Also in Sadiyah, gunmen shot to death an Iraqi journalist from The New York Times as he was driving to work in the morning, the third employee of a Western news outlet to be killed in two days.
Khalid W. Hassan, 23, had called less than an hour earlier to say a checkpoint had blocked his normal route – then after the attack, he was able to call his mother on his cell phone, telling her, “I’ve been shot,” according to the Times.
Hassan, who had worked for the paper for four years, was the second Times employee to be killed in Iraq, following the 2005 slaying of a stringer for the paper in the southern city of Basra. Hassan’s death came a day after two Iraqi staffers of the London-based Reuters news agency – a photographer and a driver – were killed in clashes between U.S. forces and Shiite militiamen in east Baghdad.
At least 110 journalists and 40 media support staffers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 80 percent of them were Iraqis.