US troops battled Iraqi police suspected of links to Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen today, killing six.
Seven gunmen were also killed in the clash in eastern Baghdad, sparked when US troops arrested a police lieutenant believed to be helping Iran organise Shiite militants as well as leading a cell involved in bomb and mortar attacks on US and Iraqi troops, the American military said in a statement.
Also today, 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.
Shiite militias have considerable power within police ranks, prompting many Sunni Arabs to shun the force, accusing it of helping – or participating in - death squads that have slain thousands of Sunnis. Over the past year, the government has removed several thousand policemen accused of militia links and has tightened the vetting process for recruits.
Purging the police is among the elusive political benchmarks that the Bush administration is pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to carry out, and an assessment released yesterday acknowledged that progress in the purge was “unsatisfactory”.
The assessment reported spotty progress on the 18 benchmarks Washington is seeking – many of them political reforms aimed at swaying sway disillusioned Sunnis away from the insurgency to support the political process.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged congressional critics of Iraq war policy to give the Bush administration and the Baghdad government until September to “make a coherent judgment of where we are”.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh today praised what he called “the positive direction” in yesterday’s assessment – though it gave “unsatisfactory” marks on eight of the benchmarks.
Al-Dabbagh said Iraqi security forces “have advanced to a level that it now depends on itself in leading operations against terrorists and outlaws, with backing from Multinational forces. They are in continuous progress to reach the point of totally depending on themselves.”
US 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 today’s.
It began before dawn when US troops launched a raid and captured the lieutenant, but quickly came under heavy fire from multiple directions, including nearby rooftops and a church, the military said. “Heavy and accurate” fire was also coming from a nearby police checkpoint, it said.
As the Americans fought back, US warplanes struck in front of the police position, without hitting it directly, “to prevent further escalation” of the battle, the military said. There were no casualties among the US 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.
Top Sunni politician Adnan al-Duleimi 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 US military has accused Iran of arming Shiite extremists drawn from the ranks of militias and organising them into a network to carry out attacks on US and Iraqi troops – but today’s statement was the first time the military has spoken of the Iranian efforts extending into the Iraqi police.
It said the captured lieutenant was a “high-ranking” leader of a cell suspected of helping co-ordinate 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 US military says it funnelling help to the networks, a charge Tehran denies.
The double loyalties of many policemen is one factor weakening the force that the US military is counting on – along with the Iraqi army – to keep security in areas that American forces clear of militants.
Police also suffer from poorer equipment than their army counterparts, and despite four years of efforts to train the force, US commanders acknowledge it is often outmatched by insurgents.
US 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 north-west, and have brought a relative easing of attacks in the capital.
Still, Baghdad remains far from calm. 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 fired from the city’s dangerous southern districts at the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where government offices and the US 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 the their late 20s and an 11-year-old girl – dumped in an empty lot in the Sadiyah district of south-western 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 killing of New York Times reporter Khalid Hassan took place in Sadiyah, where gunmen shot him as he drove to work, the newspaper said. 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 mobile phone, telling her: “I’ve been shot.”
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 by clashes between US forces and Shiite militiamen in east Baghdad.
At least 110 journalists and 40 media support staffers have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 80% of media deaths have been Iraqis.