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At least six police killed, 20 wounded in attack near Baghdad

Insurgents target Iraq's fledgling security forces

BAGHDAD -- Insurgents attacked police yesterday in a region that has become one of Iraq's most dangerous, setting off an intense battle that lasted nearly two hours and left at least six policemen dead and 20 wounded, the US military said.

The fighting raged in Salman Pak, a town about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, as insurgents attacked police with mortars and gunfire, the military said. Nearly 20 cars were burning after the clash, one of the largest in weeks. There were no reports of insurgent deaths, but the US military said patrols were pursuing the gunmen.

Salman Pak is on the eastern edge of a region Iraqis have dubbed the "triangle of death," parts of which are so dangerous that many Iraqis are reluctant to travel its roads. Checkpoints manned by insurgents have sprung up along some of the region's highways as well as in such cities as Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah that have occasionally fallen under the sway of gunmen.

Restive for months, the region is populated by both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

News agencies, using Iraqi Interior Ministry accounts, put the police death toll at 14, with six missing, and said the fighting was so intense at one point that reinforcements were unable to reach the wounded or recover the dead, who were left lying in the road. Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton, a military spokesman, said six policemen were killed in the fighting, which began at 1:45 p.m.

The clash was the bloodiest of several attacks yesterday across Iraq, where insurgents have pressed ahead with a campaign against the country's fledgling security forces, whose success will determine the pace of a withdrawal of the 150,000 US troops in Iraq.

In Baghdad, a car bomb tore through Liberation Square, a landmark and one of the city's busiest roundabouts, after a US convoy drove past. The explosives, packed in a black sport-utility vehicle and apparently detonated by remote control, shattered the windows of nearby shops and destroyed another car. Iraqi police said at least four people were killed.

At the scene, residents directed their anger at security forces and US soldiers for not protecting them and at the insurgents for attacking them. "I don't worry about myself only. I worry about my family, too," said a masked policeman who identified himself as Zaid.

A high school teacher who gave her name as Souad approached him: "How can I feel safe if the man who is supposed to ensure my safety is gripped with fear?"

Elsewhere, bodies of 20 Iraqi truck drivers who had been shot were found dumped on a road, their hands bound behind their backs, police Capt. Ahmed Ismail said. Some of the trucks were owned by the government, Ismail said.

In Mosul, where the police chief this week threatened to detain the families of armed men in open-air camps, the US military raided the house of a high-ranking Iraqi National Guard officer, Brigadier General Moataz Taqa. Taqa was not home, but soldiers detained four of his men, police in Mosul said.

Around dawn today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived in Mosul on a surprise visit to review Iraq security forces and meet with Iraqi and US leaders. Rumsfeld also made a surprise visit to Iraq on Christmas Eve.

The country is still awaiting results from last's month vote for a 275-member parliament, as election officials work through a final count and sort out reported irregularities in Mosul and Kirkuk.

A Western official briefing reporters said the results, originally expected yesterday, could be delayed until next week.

"They have managed an extraordinarily complex operation in a very professional way, but they will be slow," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In parts of Baghdad, green, red, and black banners went up yesterday to mark the first day of the lunar month of Muharram. For observant Shi'ites, the month culminates 10 days from now, on Ashura, when the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson in a battle near present-day Karbala is commemorated. During last year's Ashura, a string of bombings in Karbala and Baghdad killed at least 170 people.

The government said yesterday it would close all of Iraq's borders from Feb. 17 to Feb. 22, a measure designed to forestall a repeat of last year's carnage.

Also yesterday, the Arabic television Al-Jazeera aired an audiotape attributed to Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda's deputy leader, in which he declared that elections held under foreign occupation are a sham. Written portions of the message were posted on an Islamist website Feb 2.

"Reform cannot be realized under governments erected by the occupier via fraudulent elections that are supervised by the United Nations and that are protected by B-52 bombers and cluster bombs," said the speaker, whose voice and style were similar to earlier recordings by Zawahri. Reuters quoted a US intelligence official as saying the voice appeared to be that of Zawahri.

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