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US troops kill 6 Iraqi police in rare battle

Arrest triggers fierce street fight

Specialist Pipier Solano of Chelsea, Mass., left, and Pfc. Daniel Sims of Clemson, S.C., yesterday in a Baghdad building. Specialist Pipier Solano of Chelsea, Mass., left, and Pfc. Daniel Sims of Clemson, S.C., yesterday in a Baghdad building. (Chris hondros/GETTY IMAGES)

BAGHDAD -- US troops battled Iraqi police suspected of links to Iranian-backed Shi'ite militiamen, killing six in a rare firefight between American soldiers and their Iraqi partners. Yesterday's clash underscored the deep infiltration of militants in the country's security forces.

The battle came a day after the Bush administration acknowledged that the Iraqi government was making "unsatisfactory" progress in its efforts to purge the police force of Shi'ite militia -- among the elusive benchmarks Washington believes are needed to stabilize the country.

Shi'ite militias have considerable power within police ranks, prompting many Sunni Arabs to shun the force. Sunnis accuse the police of helping -- or participating in -- death squads that have slain thousands of members of their sect.

In addition to the six police officers, seven gunmen were also killed in yesterday's clash in eastern Baghdad, sparked when US troops arrested a police lieutenant, the American military said in a statement. It said the lieutenant was believed to be helping Iran organize Shi'ite militants and leading a cell involved in bomb and mortar attacks on US and Iraqi troops.

The US military has accused Iran of arming Shi'ite extremists drawn from the ranks of militias and organizing them into a network to carry out attacks on the troops. Yesterday's statement, however, was the first time the military has spoken of the Iranian efforts extending into the Iraqi police. It was unclear whether the lieutenant was a militiaman who joined the police or a police officer who later joined the militia.

American forces have arrested police in the past for Shi'ite militia links -- but rarely have the Americans and the uniformed police fallen into an open street battle, particularly one as fierce as yesterday 's.

It began before dawn when US troops launched a raid and captured the lieutenant, according to a military statement. The troops quickly came under heavy fire from multiple directions, including nearby rooftops and a church. "Heavy and accurate" fire was also coming from a nearby police checkpoint.

As the Americans fought back, US warplanes struck in front of the police position, without hitting it directly, "to prevent further escalation" of the battle. There were no casualties among the US troops, but seven gunmen and six of the police officers firing on the Americans were killed, the statement said.

Over the past year, the government has removed several thousand policemen accused of militia links and has tightened the vetting process for recruits. But top Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi said the government has not taken the purging of police seriously enough.

Also yesterday, gunmen with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades blasted guard towers outside the Interior Ministry in central Baghdad, killing five guards and wounding nine, a police official said.

At least four mortar rounds were fired from the city's dangerous southern districts at the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where government offices and the US Embassy are located. The shells hit near the home of a senior Iraqi military official, killing two Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi Army official said.

Police found the bodies of six people -- three men and two women in their late 20s and an 11-year-old girl -- dumped in an empty lot in southwestern Baghdad, another police official said. They were not immediately identified but appeared to be victims of sectarian slayings that still leave 20 to 30 bodies a day across the city.

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