FALLOUJA, Iraq — Masked men stormed an Iraqi police station Saturday morning, hurling grenades and pumping out machine-gun fire in a daylight street battle that killed at least 22 people and freed dozens of prisoners.
With cries of "God is great," the assailants shot their way into the police station and opened the jailhouse doors. Iraqi officials estimated that at least 87 prisoners fled.
It wasn't clear whether the battle was waged in resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, or whether tribal or criminal motives drove an intense and blood-spattered prison break. If the assault was meant to pummel the Iraqi police for cooperating with the U.S.-led occupation, it marked a bold shift in tactics from suicide attacks and homemade bombs to a gun battle waged by a guerrilla squad.
If it was a planned jail break, as some Fallouja residents theorized, Saturday's violence was a devastating measure of the lawlessness that continues to grip Iraq, especially in this restive city in the so-called Sunni Triangle.
Whatever its motivations, the battle fueled worries that Iraq won't be stable enough for the U.S.-led coalition's plan to hand over sovereignty at the end of June. More than 125 Iraqis died last week in attacks on army and police stations, raising questions about whether the local forces will be strong enough to guarantee security.
The latest violence came two days after a nearby civil defense compound in Fallouja was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, and machine guns during a visit by Army Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. The general escaped unharmed, and responded, "This is Fallouja. What do you expect?" Gunmen charged that compound also during the jailbreak.
Saturday's attack erupted early in the morning, when police were still milling through the station -- drinking tea, eating sandwiches and readying themselves for a scheduled course on checkpoints and patrols. The gunmen pulled up in cars and Jeeps, positioned themselves in a horseshoe formation around the compound, and then opened fire, witnesses said.
RPGs and mortar rounds crashed to the ground, and gunmen stormed the station in a wave of machine-gun fire, witnesses said.
Witness estimates of the number of gunmen varied greatly, from 12 to 70.
"It was just like the front lines of a war," said Majid abu Arkon, who owns a restaurant down the street from the police station. He was puttering around beneath his threadbare awning when a Jeep came to a stop nearby. Four men climbed down and opened fire at the police station, he said.
"It was an indescribable sight, just a battle," said 31-year-old police officer Mohammed Khalil, who said he fought until he ran out of bullets, then fled. "I fired 60 rounds and it wasn't enough; I had to run away."
Four of the attackers were believed to be among the dead, along with at least 15 policemen and two civilians. At least 33 people were wounded. Injured survivors described crouching in side offices and bathrooms, or playing dead, while the battle pounded on for nearly an hour.
When the shooting began, Jumaa Mohammed Darweesh saw his friend collapse onto the ground before his eyes, badly wounded. Darweesh wanted to run, he said, but his colleague begged him not to leave.
So Darweesh, who had been shot in the leg, dragged the bleeding man into the guard station and shoved a metal filing cabinet in front of the window. They waited there while grenades clattered down and gunfire roared outside.
"There was shooting all around, and the other captain was almost dead," he said. "Other guys were shot right in front of me. There was a civilian in the police station. They shot him in the head, and he died immediately."
Near the end of the battle, Darweesh heard the gunmen pass close by. "They said, 'All these people are dead. Leave them,' " he said.
The jailhouse holds as many as 100 inmates, including car thieves and robbers, police said. There were mixed reports on whether all or some of the prisoners were freed. Witnesses said at least 50 prisoners were freed. Iraqi officials estimated the number at more than 87.
"All the prisoners were released, and started to run away," said 20-year-old Police Officer Ali Fader. "They were wrapping their heads with kaffiyehs. They were chanting, 'God is great.' "
In theory, U.S. troops are supposed to back up Iraqi police during crises. But witnesses said no U.S. soldiers were visible during Saturday's battle. When asked by Associated Press about the Fallouja police after the attack, Abizaid said: "Obviously, they are not fully trained. They are not ready."
The absence of U.S. troops fed suspicions among witnesses that the United States had planned and orchestrated the attack. The theory that Americans are secretly staging the insurgency to help justify a prolonged occupation has been gaining popularity among Iraqis. In some cases, witnesses to suicide bombings have claimed they saw U.S. helicopters firing missiles to spark the explosions.