U.S. troops repel attack by Sunni insurgents


RAMADI, Iraq (AP) – U.S. troops repelled an attack Monday by Sunni Arab insurgents who used suicide car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons in a coordinated assault against this city’s main government building and two U.S. observation posts.

The fighting in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, provided fresh evidence that the insurgency is thriving in Sunni Arab-dominated areas despite last month’s decline in U.S. deaths.

In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces fought an hours-long gunbattle with about 50 insurgents in the Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, the U.S. military said. Five insurgents were killed and two Iraqi troops were wounded, the U.S. said.

The latest attack began when two suicide car bombers sped toward the government building, known here as Government Center, using a road closed to civilian traffic, Marine Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio said.

U.S. Marines fired flares to warn the vehicles to stop. When they refused, the Americans opened fire with .50 caliber machine guns from the building’s sandbagged rooftop. The vehicles turned and sped away but exploded on a main road, sending a huge fireball into the sky and triggering a shock wave that damaged the U.S. post, Del Gaudio said.

As part of the assault, other insurgents fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at Marine positions at the roof of the Government Center, which includes the office of the Anbar governor, and at another observation post, Del Gaudio said.

A U.S. Army tank fired a 120 mm shell at a small white mosque where about 15 insurgents were shooting at the Government Center, Del Gaudio said. The round damaged part of the minaret and the firing ceased, he said.

Lt. Col. Stephen M. Neary, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, said it was the fourth time in the past 31/2 weeks that insurgents had used the mosque to fire on the government building.

The total number of insurgent casualties was unknown. But Lt. Carlos Goetz said Marines killed at least three insurgents firing mortar rounds toward the Government Center.

There were no reports of U.S. casualties in the 90-minute attack in Ramadi, the second in the past 10 days against the government headquarters for Anbar.

In Baghdad, fighting erupted in Azamiyah before dawn when an Iraqi army patrol came under fire, a U.S. statement said. Four hours later, gunmen attacked a U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint in the area, prompting the command to send American and Iraqi reinforcements. The U.S. statement said clashes continued until early afternoon.

The attack in Ramadi was the biggest since April 8, when insurgents besieged the Government Center until U.S. jets blasted several buildings used by gunmen to fire on the Marines.

U.S. officials had been encouraged by what they described as a relative lull in Anbar, suggesting it was a result of weariness among ordinary Sunni Arabs who were turning against al-Qaida-led insurgent groups.

Last week, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters in Baghdad that insurgent attacks in Anbar were down to an average of 18 a day – compared to a daily average of 27 last October. At the same time, U.S. deaths for March numbered 31 – the lowest monthly figure since February 2004.

However, U.S. deaths have been rising this month. Of the 47 American service members reported killed in Iraq so far in April, at least 28 have died in Anbar.

Anbar was largely spared the wave of sectarian violence that has swept much of Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra – largely because the province is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Most of the sectarian violence has occurred in Baghdad and other religiously mixed areas. A Shiite cleric was killed Monday night in southwest Baghdad during a drive-by shooting, police said.

In order to quell sectarian unrest, U.S. officials have been urging the Iraqis to speed up formation of a national unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The process has stalled because of Sunni and Kurdish objections to the Shiite candidate to head the new government, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Prospects for a quick end to the stalemate were in doubt Tuesday as al-Jaafari’s Dawa party pledged to support him for another term as long as he wants the job. Al-Jaafari has refused to give up the nomination, which he won in a Shiite caucus last February.

Parliament had been set to meet Monday to try to break the deadlock, but the session was postponed after Shiite politicians gave assurances they could reach a decision on al-Jaafari themselves without a bruising parliamentary fight.

One option floated called for replacing al-Jaafari with another candidate from Dawa, one of the seven parties in the Shiite alliance.

But Ali al-Adeeb, a top Dawa official whose name has been mentioned as a possible replacement, said Monday that the party would not put forward a new candidate unless al-Jaafari decided to step aside, suggesting further delays.

“Dawa cannot present any candidate unless al-Jaafari decides to step aside,” al-Adeeb told The Associated Press. “So far his position has not changed.”

Shiite officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive, said some Dawa figures were willing to see al-Jaafari go in favor of either al-Adeeb or Jawad al-Maliki. But the party resented outside pressure from Shiites representing other parties as well as from the Americans and British.

The Shiites won 130 of the 275 parliament seats – not enough to govern without the Sunnis and Kurds. Those groups oppose al-Jaafari, saying he has failed to stop the recent surge in sectarian bloodshed, and neither side has enough votes to force a decision.

Another 17 bodies of people believed victims of sectarian reprisal killings were found Monday, including one in Basra and the rest in Baghdad. They included the body of Taha al-Mutlaq, brother of leading Sunni Arab politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, who was found in a Shiite area of west Baghdad.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.