29 Die in Insurgent Ambush of Iraq Police

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Insurgents lured police to a house in west Baghdad with an anonymous tip about a rebel hideout, then set off explosives, killing at least 29 people and wounding 18 in the latest in a series of deadly strikes against Iraqi security forces, police said Wednesday.

The explosion late Tuesday erupted from inside the house in the capital's Ghazaliya district as officers were about to enter, a local police official said. Ten neighboring houses collapsed from the blast and several residents were believed trapped under the rubble. Seven policemen were among the 29 dead.

The police official said the attack was "evidently an ambush" and that "massive amounts of explosives" were used. He said the explosion was apparently triggered by remote control.

The U.S. military said Wednesday 1,700 to 1,800 pounds of explosives appear to have been used. It added that American soldiers and Iraqi troops "worked together through the night to pull potential survivors from the rubble."

Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry Division that controls Baghdad, said the house that exploded was booby-trapped.

"The insurgent has no respect for life and an insurgent is anti-Islam," he said.

Hammond said U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces launched an offensive south of Baghdad on Wednesday with an aim of "capturing or detaining or killing insurgents."

Car bombs, ambushes and assassinations killed a total of at least 54 people in the Iraqi capital and across the volatile Sunni Triangle on Tuesday, including 31 policemen and a deputy provincial governor.

The attacks — including one in which 12 policemen had their throats slit — were the latest by insurgents targeting Iraqis working with the American military or the U.S.-backed government ahead of the Jan. 30 national elections.

Hammond said the violence is expected to escalate before the ballot.

"We anticipate that the enemy will (continue with) attacks, intimidation, assassinations and other messages designed to destroy life in Baghdad," Hammond said, adding that Iraqi security forces will bear the brunt of providing security for the elections and that U.S. troops will back them up only if needed.

Iraqi forces launched a series of raids Wednesday in Baghdad's northern neighborhood of Azamiya and in the town of Mahmoudiya, just south of the capital, detaining at least 50 suspected insurgents — including several Syrians, the government said. The statement also said an Egyptian citizen, who was identified as Salah, was captured in Baghdad's central Karrada neighborhood. He had explosives and terrorist propaganda, it added.

The government also said its forces captured on Dec. 23 a key leader of a Mosul-based cell affiliated with the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi terrorist network. Abu Marwan, a 33-year-old Iraqi, was identified as a senior commander in the Mosul-based group Abu Talha, linked with al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's leader in Iraq and the most wanted terrorist operating in the country.

In the southern province of Babil, police said 20 members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam al-Madhi Army militia were detained on suspicion of involvement in planting explosives and attacking police stations in the region.

The U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday that the Iraqi security guards repelled three separate attacks by insurgents who tried to seize two police stations in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Also on Wednesday, a firefight erupted between U.S. troops and militants in the central Iraqi city of Samarra, witnesses said. There were no reports of casualties.

Shiite Muslims, who make up around 60 percent of Iraq's people, have been strong supporters of the elections, which they expect to reverse the longtime domination of Iraq's Sunni minority. The insurgency is believed to draw most of its support from Sunnis, who provided much of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party membership.

A Defense Ministry spokesman in Baghdad confirmed Wednesday that the Iraqi National Guard — a paramilitary internal security force that has borne the brunt of the anti-insurgency effort — will be merged with the regular armed forces.

The national guard is also part of Iraq's Defense Ministry, and U.S. planners had intended it to be the main security force in the country. Several units took part in U.S.-led campaigns to retake the cities of Samarra and Fallujah from the rebels. But with the war escalating and combat losses mounting, the move is an apparent effort to improve the efficiency of the security forces ahead of elections.