US and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters and fighter jets battled insurgents in northern Iraq yesterday as rebels staged a daylight attack on an interior ministry outpost in Baghdad, killing two policemen.
The violence flared the day after the government announced that deposed president Saddam Hussein would stand trial on Oct. 19 over a 1982 massacre of Shiites, a decision branded politically motivated by his defense lawyers.
The military offensive near Tal Afar, 80km west of Iraq's main northern city of Mosul, saw US helicopters on Sunday firing at a mosque used by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns to attack US forces.
"Terrorists operating from within a mosque ... engaged Iraqi and coalition troops... [who] requested the assistance of coalition helicopters," the military said, adding that helicopters returned fire "immediately stopping the enemy salvo."
On Sunday, the US military said that US F-16 jet fighters dropped two bombs in the region of Tal Afar in support of coalition ground troops. At least 13 rebels were killed in Sunday's clashes, the military said.
Tal Afar, close to the Syrian border, is known as a hotbed of insurgent activity. According to an Iraqi government official, the town has seen a spike in the number of foreign rebels and rising sectarian tensions between its Sunni Arab and Shiite Turkmen communities.
In Baghdad, rebels launched a dawn raid on a police checkpoint outside the interior ministry, arriving aboard four cars and spraying police with automatic gunfire before escaping.
Two policemen were killed and five wounded, an interior ministry official said.
Sunni Arabs have claimed the ministry is controlled by Shiite-led political groups who are using the the institution for their own sectarian gains. Last week a prominent Sunni leader, Adnan Dulaimi, charged that security forces belonging to the interior ministry were carrying out sectarian killings around the country, after 36 corpses were found near a highway.
In other violence, four US soldiers were wounded when a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a military humvee setting it ablaze in southwestern Baghdad, the US military said.
Three Iraqi civilians were also hurt in the attack, an official said.
The driver of a truck belonging to the North Oil Company was killed and a passenger was wounded when a bomb exploded on a highway linking the northern town of Kirkuk to the oil refining center of Baiji, oil protection force Captain Ali al-Obaidi told reporters.
In Kirkuk itself, two policemen were seriously wounded when a bomb destroyed their vehicle.
On Sunday, government spokesman Laith Kubba announced that Saddam and seven of his former henchmen will go on trial on Oct. 19 over the massacre of 143 residents of a Shiite village after an assassination bid against the ousted dictator.
The 68-year-old Saddam could have an execution by hanging if found guilty. He is also expected to face separate trials at a later date on further counts of crimes against humanity, particularly over the gassing of Kurds and the mass killings of Shiites in the south of the country.
The Oct. 19 start-date means the trial would open just after the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum to approve Iraq's new draft constitution, although Kubba said the timing was purely coincidental.