Iraqi security forces clashed with insurgents who blasted their way into a police compound west of Baghdad to free terror suspects in a deadly battle lasting several hours Sunday. Meanwhile, a high-level meeting in the capital failed to make progress toward ending a political crisis polarizing the country for the past month.
In a test for Iraqi forces following the end of the U.S. military mission last month, eight insurgents dressed in military uniforms and explosives-rigged vests stormed the compound in the city of Ramadi in the predominantly Sunni Arab western province of Anbar, according to local officials and the Ministry of Interior. Until a few years ago the area was a hotbed for al Qaeda militants.
They said a total of 18 people, including the attackers, were killed in the standoff. It came one day after 53 Shiite pilgrims were killed and dozens wounded by a suicide bomber near the southern city of Basra. Almost 150 people have been killed in violence throughout the country since the start of the year.
Sunday's coordinated attack in Ramadi started late morning with several near-simultaneous bombs going off on the road leading to the government security complex housing police headquarters, a counterterrorism unit, an underground prison and other facilities in an attempt to draw guards out, Anbar Gov. Qassim al-Fahdawi said.
Within minutes a car bomb exploded at the gate of the compound, killing three policemen. In the chaos that ensued two insurgents were killed at the entrance and the remaining six breached security and tried to take over the building housing the counterterrorism unit and the prison. They met resistance, forcing them to retreat into an adjacent building that was still under construction, Gov. Fahdawi said.
Reinforcements in armored vehicles were dispatched to the scene, triggering a gunbattle lasting several hours in which two of the assailants were killed and the remaining four detonated their explosives, local officials said.
In addition to the insurgents, seven police officers and three civilians were killed in the attack, the Ministry of Interior said.
Aifan al-Issawi, a Parliament member and tribal leader who previously led some of the U.S.-backed Sunni militias that battled al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Anbar between 2006 and 2008, said Sunday's attack bore all the hallmarks of al Qaeda.
Mr. Issawi said disputes among politicians in Baghdad were providing ample opportunities for insurgents to regroup and mount lethal attacks in Anbar and elsewhere.
"In Baghdad we are preoccupied with how we can finish each other off politically," he said. "How one can take over the other's ministerial post therefore ignoring the security remit."
As explosions engulfed Ramadi, in Baghdad about 70 miles (115 kilometers) to the east, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and other senior officials to try to end a month-old boycott by a predominantly Sunni bloc known as Iraqiya of Parliament and Mr. Maliki's Shiite-led government.
The head of Iraqiya, Ayad Allawi, skipped the meeting, which had been billed as a preparatory one for a broader national conference, sending instead a representative who read a letter listing his demands to return to government, an Iraqiya spokesman said.
Among the numerous sticking points is the case of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent member of Iraqiya, who is wanted for allegedly running death squads targeting Shiites. He has described the charges as part of a political vendetta by Mr. Maliki and for the past four weeks has taken shelter in the northern semiautonomous Kurdistan region, which is a state-within-a-state out of Baghdad's control.
Mr. Hashemi had asked for the case to be moved to a more neutral venue like the city of Kirkuk, almost halfway between Baghdad and Kurdistan. But an appellate court in Baghdad ruled against this request, according to a statement Sunday posted on the website of Iraq's Higher Judicial Council.