BAGHDAD, April 11 -- Insurgents claiming links to al Qaeda tried to overrun a U.S. Marine base near the Syrian border Monday using gunmen, suicide car bombs and a firetruck loaded with explosives, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
The assault was the second time in less than two weeks that foreign insurgents have massed an organized, military-style offensive, U.S. officials said. Insurgents typically have staged smaller-scale bombings and attacks.
In another development, an American contractor believed to be working on an aid project was reported kidnapped in the Baghdad area, the U.S. Embassy said. Authorities released no other information, but soldiers stepped up searches of vehicles entering Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
[On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, en route to a surprise visit to Iraq, told reporters that the country's new interim leaders should avoid political purges and cronyism that could spark "lack of confidence or corruption in government," the Reuters news agency reported. He arrived in Baghdad before sunrise.]
The raid Monday was on Camp Gannon, a U.S. base at Husaybah, a few yards from the Syrian border near the Euphrates River. U.S. Cobra attack helicopters fired on the insurgents to repel simultaneous attacks by suicide bombers and armed fighters, officials said. A second car bomb exploded 15 minutes after the first assault, "at the same entrance, while the soldiers were busy rescuing the wounded," Capt. Saad Abdul Fattah of the Iraqi army said.
The U.S. military said three Marines were wounded and at least three bombers were killed. Witnesses and a hospital spokesman reported 10 to 15 dead, including foreign and Iraqi insurgents.
A statement posted on an Islamic Web site, purportedly from the group al Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the attack.
Camp Gannon is an abandoned railway station that houses hundreds of Marines along a border long used by smugglers and other outlaws. Insurgents have operated openly in some towns in the area.
The suicide bombers, driving a firetruck, a pickup truck and one other vehicle, "attempted to breach the perimeter of Camp Gannon," the U.S. military said in a statement.
The bombs exploded prematurely, slightly damaging the camp defenses of concertina wire and barricades. A mosque and other surrounding buildings also sustained minor damage, the statement said.
Marines came under small-arms fire at the same time, the military said. A 25-year-old student who witnessed the attack said at least 40 Arab and Iraqi fighters took part in the assault.
Cobra attack helicopters fired on a vehicle carrying an unknown number of gunmen, destroying it, the military said.
The attack came nine days after the group, led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, asserted responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt to breach the walls of the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in a concerted attack involving mortars, rockets, car bombs and ground fighters. U.S. officials said the two attacks were well-planned and mark an operational shift for foreign groups that have been known for individual suicide bombings and kidnappings.
Zarqawi's group appears to be trying for a spectacular coup against U.S. forces in a bid to regain flagging popular support and momentum, a U.S. official in Baghdad said.