BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces on Sunday battled gunmen who detonated a car bomb before blasting their way into a government compound and killing seven policemen in a one-time Sunni insurgent hotbed, police and local government officials said.
The three-hour standoff between Shiite-dominated security forces and suspected Sunni insurgents in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, marked the first serious gunbattle for Iraqi forces against insurgents without American backup since the U.S. military completed its withdrawal last month.
Violence has surged since American troops left, and Iraq was plunged into a political crisis after Shiite-dominated government charged Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi with running death squads, issuing an arrest warrant against him just as the last U.S. soldiers crossed into neighboring Kuwait.
On Sunday, a court in Baghdad ruled that al-Hashemi must stand trial on terror charges in Baghdad, rejecting his request to be tried in the ethnically mixed city in Kirkuk. He has fled to the autonomous Kurdish region, out of reach of authorities in Baghdad.
Al-Hashemi's Iraqiya party is boycotting parliament and Cabinet sessions since last month to protest what it sees as efforts by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to consolidate power, particularly over state security forces.
The sectarian crisis in the government and the spike in attacks, like a bombing Saturday that killed more than 50 pilgrims during a Shiite procession and Sunday's assault on the government buildings, has raised concerns Iraq could return to sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands of civilians after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and brought the country to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
On Sunday morning, five gunmen wearing military uniforms and explosive-rigged vests stormed a compound in Ramadi Sunday morning, two police officials said. The compound houses Ramadi police headquarters and several federal security agencies, including an anti-terrorism police task force and a detention facility where terrorism suspects are interrogated.
Before reaching the compound in central Ramadi, the gunmen set off an explosives-filled car in the eastern part of the city, in an apparent effort to draw security personnel from the heavily guarded government area, according to an Anbar government official. Comrades of the attackers were being been held there on suspicion of involvement in terror attacks,
One policeman was killed and three others were injured in the blast, police and health officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Sadoun Obaid al-Jumaily, deputy president of the Anbar Provincial Council had a slightly different account of Sunday's assault. He told the AP that the five gunmen drove to the entrance of the compound. Four got out of the car and clashed with the police, al-Jumaily said.
Security forces killed two attackers, and two managed to get into the building where the suspected insurgents were being held.
"They came to free their colleagues ... that were recently detained," al-Jumaily said, adding that two gunmen got to the roof of the building. They were killed after an hour-long fight with security forces, al-Jumaily said.
The fifth attacker was killed in the blast of the explosives-packed car aimed at killing police and army troops, who were rushing to the compound the fight the gunmen, al-Jumaily said.
Six policemen were killed in the gunfight and 13 others were wounded, al-Jumaily said. Officials at Ramadi's main hospital confirmed the death toll.
Most of the latest attacks appear to be aimed at Iraq's majority Shiites, suggesting Sunni insurgents are seeking to undermine the Shiite-dominated government.
More than 145 people have been killed in attacks since the start of the year.
On Saturday, a bomb tore through a procession of Shiite pilgrims heading toward the largely Sunni town of Zubair in southern Iraq, killing at least 53 people and wounding at least 130 other in the latest sign of a power struggle between rival Muslim sects.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk, Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.