BAGHDAD, April 4 -- Insurgent groups led by foreigners and Iraqis asserted Monday that guerrilla leader Abu Musab Zarqawi's organization was responsible for a major assault on Abu Ghraib prison Saturday that U.S. officers called one of the most sophisticated attacks of the insurgency.
Rocket barrages forced Marine guards to abandon a prison watchtower at the height of the precision-timed offensive, which employed mortars, rockets, ground assaults and a car bomb, a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, said Monday.
U.S. soldiers inspect an overturned van on the road to Baghdad's airport following an accident involving a U.S. military convoy, witnesses said. Three people were evacuated.
(Hadi Mizban -- AP)
U.S. rapid-response troops, backed by Apache helicopters and artillery, fired small arms and grenades to help the guards drive attackers back from prison walls, Rudisill said. The battle wounded 44 American troops and 13 of the more than 3,000 detainees held at the prison.
"It was one of the more concerted attacks that we've seen," said Lt. Col. Steven A. Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman.
Asked if there had been any other insurgent attack that surpassed it, Boylan said, "Not that I'm aware of."
In an interview, Iraqi insurgent leaders said the assault was carried out by Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq. The claim was also made in the name of the group on a radical Islamic Web site. The group's numerous attacks had until now largely involved suicide bombings, car bombings and kidnappings rather than direct confrontations with U.S. forces.
U.S. authorities said they had not yet determined the veracity of the claims. Boylan said it was "too early to say whether this is a new trend or a new strategy'' for the insurgency, which in March inflicted fewer casualties on U.S. forces than in any month since February 2004.
Insurgent commanders said Monday that the prison assault represented a shift in tactics and that more attacks on U.S. installations would follow.
"These operations will be different from the old ones, the car bombs, the IEDs,'' said Abu Jalal, a top commander in the extremist group Mohammed's Army, using the common abbreviation for improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs. Mohammed's Army is one of dozens of home-grown armed groups believed to be fighting the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
"We are going to use the same method that they used when they attacked Iraq," said Abu Jalal, who uses a nom de guerre and described himself as a former general in the Iraqi military during Saddam Hussein's rule.
"The old military officers know very well that the attacks on the bases of the enemy army weaken the morale of the soldiers and frighten them. The soldier feels safe when he goes back to his base. If he is attacked in the place that feels safe, that place is really hell," Abu Jalal said.
If Zarqawi was behind the attack, it was unclear where or when his movement acquired the tactical expertise to directly confront U.S. Marines. Abu Jalal denied that former military officers in Mohammed's Army had served as advisers, saying, "It was 100 percent Zarqawi." The statement on the radical Web site said "sources with the enemy" had helped provide information to plot the attack.
Abu Jalal said the attack had been launched to free a commander of Zarqawi's group and associates held at Abu Ghraib.
The prison complex at Abu Ghraib, about 20 miles west of Baghdad, became notorious for torture under Hussein. After the U.S. invasion toppled Hussein, Abu Ghraib was taken over by the U.S. military and became the focus of widely publicized abuses of detainees by American forces.