BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunmen stormed the former insurgent bastion of Samarra in northern Iraq yesterday, killing at least two elite police commandos and injuring as many as six.
Witnesses said armed men in as many as 10 civilian cars marauded through Samarra, a historic Tigris River shrine city filled with archaeological treasures. They attacked a building used by security forces with mortars and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. The gunmen then surrounded the hospital and began shooting at it until Iraqi and U.S. reinforcements arrived, witnesses said.
Samarra was the site of a U.S.-led assault last summer meant to rid the city of insurgents. Residents said tensions had peaked after a raid Tuesday on a pharmaceutical factory by security forces.
Elsewhere, an insurgent group with ties to al-Qaida claimed responsibility in an Internet statement for the execution of Kamal Khaled Zebari, a Kurdish security officer in the city of Mosul.
"After he admitted assisting crusader forces since they entered Iraq, the rule of God was implemented and he was executed by firing squad," said the statement by Ansar al Sunna.
In Baghdad, a mortar round landed in the parking lot of the popular Babel Hotel last night, shattering the calm on a relatively quiet day in the capital. There was no official word on casualties.
In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, witnesses reported a demonstration against the arrest of regional police commander Maj. Gen. Mizher Taha Ghanam, who was lured to the capital and detained. Protesters said the arrest would only exacerbate tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Also yesterday, many Sunnis reacted with disappointment to President Bush's speech Tuesday in which he vowed to keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely.
"The presence of the American forces doesn't solve the problem. It only makes it more complicated," said Khalaf Aliyan, leader of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni Arab umbrella group. "The forces have to have a schedule for withdrawing from Iraq. Iraqis are fighting now because the troops are here. If they leave, they won't have justification for fighting."
But some members of the community were heartened by Bush's assurances that Sunni Arabs were essential to Iraq's future.
"This is the first time Bush mentioned the Sunni Arabs in his speech since the occupation of Iraq," said Mishaan Jaburi, a Sunni Arab member of the transitional National Assembly. "This is a positive change."
Among Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, who suffered under the rule of successive Sunni governments, many expressed relief that Bush announced no plans to set a timeline for pulling out.
"Now their presence is necessary, and withdrawal is a risk," said Jamal Abdul-Kareem, 52, who runs a grocery store in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood. "There are many terrorist groups. Their presence benefits us until our police and army will be trained and equipped."
Hussein Kurdi, a 42-year-old refrigerator repairman of Kurdish descent whose brothers were executed by Hussein's regime, said he feared the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal.
"If the Americans withdraw, I expect that those who were controlling and oppressing us will return and take the reins of power," he said.
But even Iraqis who approved of the continued presence of U.S. troops criticized Bush for labeling Iraq "the latest battlefield" in the war on terrorism that his administration declared after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Iraq was clear of terrorists before the entrance of U.S. troops," said Haithem Mahmoud, 33, a doctor in Najaf. "It is like they transferred the war on terrorism to Iraq."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.