Source AP ©

Al-Qaida suspects assault police checkpoints in Samarra

Two hours of fighting were sparked by sixty suspected al-Qaida fighters who hit national police facilities in coordinated attacks in Samarra. Three people were killed and more than a dozen insurgents captured, police said Friday.

The masked attackers drove into the city at dusk Thursday in about 20 vehicles, including pickups with machine-guns, then split into small groups and assaulted four police checkpoints and a headquarters building, a Samarra police official said.

One policeman and two civilians - a woman and an 11-year-old girl - were killed in the fighting in the city 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, and nine others were injured including a police commando and three children. There were no details on insurgent casualties, but police arrested 14 suspects, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a U.S. military spokesman in northern Iraq, said he had no details on the incident reported by Samarra police, but that an American patrol got into a firefight with gunmen in the city on Friday.

Two of the insurgents were killed and another captured, Donnelly said. There were no immediate reports of U.S. casualties.

The U.S. command reported that one soldier was killed in an explosion Friday in Salahuddin province, which includes Samarra, and four soldiers were wounded. It was unclear whether the incident was the same one reported by Donnelly.

The brazen attack on the Samarra police facilities came after early morning assaults by suspected al-Qaida fighters on two villages to the southeast of Samarra near Baqouba, where fighters bombed the house of a local Sunni sheik and kidnapped a group of mostly women.

Residents were finally able to drive off the attackers and end the deadly rampage, but not before 17 villagers, including seven women, were killed. Ten al-Qaida gunmen also died.

Elsewhere, the U.S. command said Friday that Iraqi troops and U.S. Special Forces raided a home in the Hit area and seized an al-Qaida suspect believed to have shot down an American helicopter in 2004.

The forces detained the suspect and a "second person of interest" in the Wednesday raid, and found an assault rifle as well as numerous identification cards and passports. In addition to the helicopter attack, the primary suspect - whose name was not released - is believed to be involved in roadside bombing and sniper attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in the region, 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of Baghdad, the military said in a statement.

The twin attacks near the Diyala provincial capital of Baquoba - a city 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad that has been the focus of recent major U.S.-Iraqi military operations against alleged al-Qaida fighters and Shiite militiamen - hit a Shiite village and a Sunni village with the same ferocity but apparently different motives.

The attack on the Sunni village, Ibrahim al-Yahya, began when about 25 gunmen exploded a bomb at the house of Sheik Younis al-Shimari, destroying his home and killing him and one member of his family. Ten people were wounded, including four other members of the family and passers-by. Some of the wounded were hit by gunfire.

"They were shouting 'Allah Akbar and a curse be upon the renegades,"' said Umm Ahmed, a woman who was wounded in the attack. She refused to give her full name fearing retribution. "This attack will cause the uprising against them to spread to other villages."

Seven people were kidnapped. Two of the abducted men were later found shot in the head on a road leading out of town. The rest of the captives were women, and their fate was unknown.

Al-Shimari and his village apparently came under attack after he called on the men there to rise up against al-Qaida.

While the Sunni village was under attack, another band of alleged al-Qaida fighters stormed Timim, the nearby Shiite village and an obvious sectarian target, according to Baqouba police Brig. Ali Dlaiyan, who reported both assaults and gave the casualty tolls. He said the villagers were able to fight off the attack in a 30-minute gunbattle.

It was unclear how many of the 17 residents who died were in each village.

A police vehicle rushing to the attack scene crashed and two policemen were killed, according to officials in the Diyala provincial police force who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The Sunni uprising against al-Qaida began spontaneously early this year in Anbar province, once a bastion of the Sunni insurgency in the west of Iraq, and has spread to Diyala province and some Baghdad neighborhoods. The U.S. military has encouraged disaffected Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, and has begun working side by side with the Sunni auxiliary units.