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9 Iraqi police dead, dozens missing after ambush

US denies report it refused to let them stay at base

BAGHDAD -- Dozens of Iraqi police were missing yesterday and nine were dead after insurgents ambushed their convoy as they left a US base where they had picked up new vehicles, Iraqi and US officials said.

Brigadier General Abbas Maadal complained that the Americans refused to allow the police to spend Thursday night at the base, just north of the capital. But Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a US military spokesman, said no such request had been made and that the Iraqis had not asked for American troops to guard the convoy.

In a separate development, the US command announced today that two US Marines were killed and 22 were wounded, two of them critically, in fighting in western Iraq.

A US statement said the casualties occurred Thursday as a result of enemy action in Anbar province, but did not give a specific location or provide details of the fighting. The names of the dead and wounded were not immediately released.

The attack on the police convoy, the deadliest against police here in months, began about 7:30 p.m. Thursday as a convoy of 109 police was traveling through a sparsely populated area near the Taji base, heading back to Najaf, 100 miles to the south, Maadal said.

Police heard cries of ''Allahu akbar," or God is great, and ''long live jihad" broadcast by loudspeaker from a nearby mosque, Maadal said. Suddenly insurgents, including some women, opened fire and triggered a roadside bomb.

Maadal said 37 police officers returned to Najaf late yesterday and about 20 more were en route. About 40 remained unaccounted for. At least nine policemen were killed and three of the 12 vehicles were heavily damaged, Johnson said. One insurgent was wounded and five were arrested, he added.

Although no US troops were with the Iraqi convoy when it came under attack, Johnson said American forces responded with helicopter gunships and ground troops.

''Once the attack occurred we did respond," he said. ''We helped engage and brought this situation under control."

A US patrol had passed along the same route shortly before the Iraqis and called for help when they heard the firing, Johnson said.

It was unclear why the insurgents allowed the Americans to pass by without attacking them. In recent months, insurgents have shifted their attacks to Iraqi forces, which have less firepower than the Americans.

The overwhelming majority of police in Najaf are Shi'ites, and the area where the attack occurred is populated mostly by Sunnis.

Sectarian violence has worsened in Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. At least 11 people were killed yesterday, including four who died in a pair of roadside bombings outside two Sunni mosques in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, police said.

One civilian died when a suicide bomber targeted a British patrol south of Basra, wounding four Britons, police and British authorities said. Two brothers were also gunned down in front of their elderly mother, who was wounded when assailants stormed into their home in a mostly Shi'ite area of Baghdad, police said.

In the northern city of Mosul, at least seven people were wounded in another suicide car bomb attack on a police station, police said. Police saw the vehicle coming and fired at the driver, preventing him from entering the compound, an official said.

The others died in bombings and a shooting in Baghdad and Mosul, police said.

Delays in forming a new national unity government four months after parliament elections has sharpened sectarian divisions.

Sunni and Kurdish opposition to the Shi'ite choice of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for another term has blocked progress toward a new government.

Leaders of the Shi'ite alliance, the dominant bloc in the legislature, said they would attend Monday's parliament session, called to break the political logjam.

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