Insurgents launched a string of assaults around the city of Samarra on Wednesday, trading gunfire with U.S. forces, attacking a U.S. convoy, and blowing up a police station after looting its armory, officials said. The violence came as Britain's defense minister visited British troops in Basra, to the south.
The violence in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killed four Iraqis and wounded several others. It demonstrated that the insurgents still remain a force in a city despite a large-scale operation launched by American forces there several months ago.
British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon was to meet with soldiers at several bases around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and with some of Britain's 9,000 troops who recently returned from a mission in central Iraq in support of U.S.-led efforts to clear insurgents from a wide swathe of territory south of Baghdad, spokesman Maj. David Gibb said.
Hoon discussed preparations for next month's elections in talks with Basra's governor, Hassan al-Rashid, during his one-day visit. He said his government was not planning to send more soldiers to Iraq ahead of the polls.
"His visit is sending a major political message to the Iraqi people and the regional states that a senior British politician is supporting not just the military operations in the country but also the political process and the rebuilding of Iraq as it moves toward the establishment of a new government after the Jan. 30 elections," Gibb said.
Basra, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, lies close to Iraq's long and porous border with Iran. Iraq's U.S.-installed authorities have repeatedly called on their neighbors — particularly Syria and Iran — to guard their borders more closely.
Officials have complained that the country's neighbors are not doing enough to prevent militants from infiltrating into Iraq.
Jordan's King Abdullah II and Iraq's interim president, both Sunni Muslims, singled out Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran, accusing it of trying to influence the elections, in which Iraq's majority Shiites are expected to perform strongly. Iraqi officials have long suggested that Iran is backing its Shiite brethren.
Abdullah told The Washington Post in an interview published Wednesday that more than 1 million Iranians have entered Iraq, many to vote, and said they were being encouraged by the Iranian government.
The king also reportedly accused the Iranians of paying salaries and providing welfare to unemployed Iraqis to promote pro-Iranian public sentiment.
"It is in Iran's vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq ... and therefore the involvement you're getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran," Abdullah said.
Iran has said it has no interest in fomenting instability in Iraq and it tries to block any infiltration into Iraq by insurgents — while pleading that its porous borders are hard to police.
But Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, sees things differently.
"Unfortunately, time is proving, and the situation is proving, beyond any doubt that Iran has very obvious interference in our business," al-Yawer told the Post.
An American soldier was slain Tuesday by small-arms fire while on patrol in Baghdad. That brought the number of U.S. combat deaths to 999, according to the Pentagon's Web site.
In Samarra, gunmen stormed a police station, looted the weapons inside and blew up the building, according to a Samarra police officer. A policeman and a child standing nearby were killed during the clashes before the insurgents fled.
U.S. military spokesman Capt. Bill Coppernoll said eight gunmen in two cars also attacked the home Samarra's chief of police, causing no casualties.
Police found the beheaded corpse of an Iraqi National Guardsman in the Hillah River, some 60 miles south of Baghdad, hospital official Hussein Madlol said Wednesday. It wasn't clear when he was killed.
American soldiers were also attacked by small arms fire near traffic intersection, but none was hurt. The soldiers began checking cars after the incident and fired at two vehicles that failed to stop when ordered to, killing both drivers, the military said.
A suicide bomber also detonated his explosives-packed car close to two U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles parked outside an American base in Samarra, injuring one Iraqi civilian, while insurgents attacked American forces at another location with machine gun fun and rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. casualties were sustained.
The U.S. military hailed its September-October operation to retake control of Samarra as a success, but violence has persisted there since American and Iraqi forces battled Iraqi and foreign insurgents, killing 127 fighters and 20 civilians. Residents say many local police are refusing to go to work, fearing insurgents will target them for supporting U.S.-led efforts to maintain security in the city.
Clashes also broke out between American troops and insurgents around a U.S. base in the troubled city of Ramadi. A hospital official said three Iraqi civilians were killed and one was wounded.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb wounded two American soldiers, who later returned to duty, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Jay Antonelli said. Iraqi hospital officials also said six Iraqis were wounded.
Attacks in recent days have killed more than 80 Iraqis, mostly members of the country's fledgling security forces. The attacks are of particular concern because Iraqi and U.S. officials have insisted they will go ahead with elections despite the violence and a call for postponement by several leading Sunni Muslim groups.