Insurgents, some believed linked with terror suspect Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, unleashed attacks on Thursday on four cities across Iraq leaving more than 66 dead and 268 wounded in an apparently coordinated onslaught.
The fighting in Baquba, Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi was the most serious challenge to the Americans since April when US forces also faced armed insurrections across central and southern Iraq.
Four US national guardsmen were killed as a bomber struck a security post on the highway south of Baghdad.
”We suspect that these were coordinated attacks, simultaneous attacks, looking at the timeline,” a senior military official said on condition of anonymity.
US marines said a Cobra helicopter gunship was downed near Fallujah where gunmen were swarming the streets and checking cars.
Marines rescued the two pilots, who survived the crash on the perimeter of Fallujah, a military officer said. A statement said the aircraft made an ”emergency landing” and the crew were in good condition.
The flashpoint western city itself came under fire from marine Cobra helicopters and fighters planes, according to the military and an AFP correspondent with US troops.
Smoke could be seen rising from the city and the sounds of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine-gun fire echoed, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
The heaviest death toll of Thursday morning’s violence was in Baquba, northeast of the capital, where at least 20 Iraqis, more than half of them policemen, and two US soldiers were killed.
Zarqawi’s group, Tawhid wa al-Jihad, launched a pre-dawn assault on Thursday on a US military patrol and a police station in the city, according to the 1st Infantry Division and an AFP correspondent.
”The days are coming for attacks against the forces of the occupation and those collaborators with them,” Zarqawi’s faction warned in a statement circulated around Baquba.
”Any resistance to these orders will be exposed to death and to the destruction of their homes.”
The western sector of Baquba was deserted except for insurgents posted on street corners and inside buildings.
The fighting broke out after the dawn Muslim prayers when men, wearing headscarves and armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, assaulted the police station.
Two dead policemen lay in the street as fighters gripped Kalashnikovs behind the windows of buildings. A black flag fluttered behind them, marked ”Allah Akbar”.
”A 1st Infantry Division patrol was attacked by anti-Iraqi forces killing two soldiers and wounding seven others in Baquba … at approximately 5.30 am,” said Major Neil O’Brian.
At least 30 rebels attacked the main police station, burned down the police chief’s home and mortared the city hall, he added.
A spokesperson for the US military based in Baquba said four 220kg bombs had later targeted a group of houses.
”At about 9.30am (5.30am GMT) we were able to idenfity a group of buildings occupied by anti-Iraqi forces. The coalition dropped four 500-pound bombs basically destroying all the buildings,” said Captain Marshall Jackson.
”The number of dead has reached 20, including 11 policemen, and another 45 wounded, including several policemen,” said Hussein Ali, an official in charge of administration at the general hospital in Baquba, 60km from Baghdad.
North of Baghdad, insurgents in Mosul set ablaze five police stations, with four car bombs and a mysterious fifth blast, in Mosul, killing several people and wounding others.
After the rash of explosions, insurgents and US soldiers were fighting in the streets, with US helicopters strafing suspected hideouts of gunmen.
The first car exploded at 9.05 am (5.05am GMT) in front of the Wadi Hajar police station in the south of the city, leaving ”many killed and wounded,” said Colonel Mohammed Seddiq al-Karkshi.
Seven people, mainly policemen, were killed and 20 wounded in a second car bomb attack on Thursday less than half an hour later, a police officer said.
The US military reported one soldier killed in the bombings and that a private security guard was also shot dead in Mosul.
A third station in the central Fathi district was also hit, police said, but there were no further details. Two more police stations were targeted by blasts, at least one of them a car bomb.
Police officers warned the Mosul death toll was expected to rise.
”Helicopters fired on insurgents who were shooting rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs,” said police captain Wadi Mohammed Abdullah.
Southwest of Baghdad, four US national guardsmen were killed and three wounded on Thursday when a man dressed in a police uniform blew up a suitcase of explosives at a security post on the road to Hilla, said an official from the paramilitary force.
In the flashpoint city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, insurgents and US marines traded fire in the streets, a witness said. The military said an agricultural centre had come under attack and possibly a police station.
A police officer later killed a would-be suicide attacker as he tried to place a suitcase containing a bomb infront of a Ramadi police station, a witness said.
In Fallujah, residents were seen fleeing to the highway out of town and gunmen running around the streets to check cars.
On Thursday afternoon, a truce was announced over the loudspeakers of mosques between the marines and insurgents as people sought to restore calm to the battered city.
Fallujah in April was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since last year’s US-led invasion of Iraq as US forces battled with insurgents. Hundreds of people were killed.
The US military on Wednesday said it may have killed 20 foreign fighters in what was its second air strike attack of the week in Fallujah on a suspected safehouse of Zarqawi. – Sapa-AFP