Dawn had yet to break and Baghdad's biggest police station, like the rest of the city, was quiet. About 80 officers dozed inside the fortress, leaving just a few sentries guarding the walls, razor wire and concrete barriers.
It started with mortars. A series of whooshes from north and south followed seconds later by explosions inside the perimeter. Figures emerged from the gloom and knelt in the middle of Hi al-Elam and Qatar Nada streets, pointing rocket launchers.
More figures materialised on rooftops overlooking the station to spray gunfire and lob grenades. Dozens of gunmen, guerrilla infantry, swarmed from houses and alleys. It was just after 5.30am and the station was surrounded.
The defenders heard engines rev and guessed what was next: suicide car bombers. Baghdad's biggest battle in months - and possibly the boldest yet by insurgents - had begun.
They struck on Monday but details of the assault on Baya'a, a vast police complex in the southern suburbs, emerged only yesterday when American and Iraqi officers opened the station to reporters. Bullet holes and debris testified to a synchronised and audacious strike by up to 100 rebels in what is supposed to be a locked-down capital.
The combination of heavy shelling, diversionary feints, infantry thrusts and suicide vehicles - the "precision-guided" equivalent of tanks - left parts of the district of Hi al-Elam a smoking ruin. If the objective was to overrun the station and free its prisoners the offensive failed. The attackers retreated after two hours, leaving dozens dead and captured. But if the objective was to send a message of power and determination it succeeded.
Photo thanks to the Gully.
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