FALLUJAH, Iraq - Insurgents launched a bold attack Thursday on an Iraqi civil defense compound in this volatile city just as the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, arrived to visit.
Three explosions ripped through an area near the compound and a six-minute gun battle ensued. Abizaid and his party, including another senior Army commander, escaped injury and quickly left.
Although soldiers said insurgent attacks on the compound are not uncommon, Thursday's close call suggested the attackers may have targeted Abizaid, the four-star general from Coleville, Calif., who runs the war in Iraq - raising new questions about how much control Americans have in the region.
It also seemed to underscore that much work remains before the Iraqis are ready to handle violence encouraged by shadowy former members of Saddam Hussein's government as well as foreign terrorists. In Thursday's incident, Iraqis initially refused to go into a mosque to search for the attackers, U.S. officials said.
The violence broke out as a U.N. envoy met with Iraq's leading Shiite cleric and told him the world was behind his demand for national elections. But there was no sign of agreement on when a vote would be held - the central issue in Shiite opposition to the U.S. plan for handing over power to Iraqis this summer.
The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, wants elections to create a provisional legislature that can run the country, but the United States says there is not enough time to organize an election before the deadline for transferring power.
In New York, the spokesman of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested that moving up elections wasn't likely and the discussions were centered on finding an alternative to Washington's plan for local councils or "caucuses."
"Everyone expects elections in 2005. The question is what can be done before June 30, and if it can't be elections, what other way can you find to establish a legitimate provisional government," spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
The U.N. assessment team, led by Lakhdar Brahimi, met al-Sistani for two hours Thursday at his home in Najaf, a Shiite holy city. The cleric has refused to meet with Americans.
In Fallujah, officials traveling with Abizaid said they did not know if any of the attackers were killed. Iraqis in Fallujah said two people were killed when the Americans sprayed the area with automatic fire. Video taken by Associated Press Television News showed civilian cars with bullet holes and blood stains.
Dozens of Iraqi men milled around a white car pocked with bullet holes. The side windows were shot out. Blood coated the front seat and floor.
Fallujah police Lt. Omar Ali said, "When we arrived there, we saw American forces. They took two dead, put them in a vehicle and left."
Ali's account could not be separately confirmed.
Abizaid was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. After the gun battle, Abizaid and Swannack canceled plans to walk into the city and instead returned to a U.S. military base near here, then flew to Doha, Qatar.
Insurgents have apparently accelerated attacks against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies in an effort to wreck the planned June 30 handover of power. Two suicide bombings against Iraqi targets on Tuesday and Wednesday killed up to 100 people. Two American soldiers were killed and another was wounded Wednesday evening by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
Also, eight mortar rounds were fired Thursday toward a U.S. military base in Baghdad, damaging several cars and lightly wounding three U.S. soldiers, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
In Fallujah, Abizaid had arrived at the local headquarters of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps to congratulate Iraqis who were forming a new battalion. The corps is seen as a key factor in plans to cede control to the Iraqis.
Abizaid had hardly stepped out of the armored vehicle that drove him into the compound, ringed by an 8-foot cinderblock wall, when an explosion rang out at about 1:35 p.m. local time. Seconds later, there were two back-to-back explosions. U.S. soldiers at the rear of the compound - out of Abizaid's sight - responded with a heavy barrage of rifle and machine gun fire.
Soldiers said later that three rocket-propelled grenades had been fired from an adjacent rooftop, although none appeared to hit inside the compound.
At about the same time, a gunman in a nearby mosque opened up with small arms fire. U.S. soldiers asked the Iraqis to go into the mosque where the gunman was holed up, but they initially refused. Soldiers searched the mosque later but didn't find anything, said Kimmitt, the military's deputy operations chief in Baghdad.
After Abizaid had been whisked back to a U.S. military base outside the city, he told an Associated Press reporter traveling with him, referring to the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, "Obviously they are not fully trained. They're not ready."
Although the circumstances seemed to suggest the possibility that Abizaid was targeted in advance, Kimmitt said such a link would be "a bit of a leap that we're not prepared to make at this time."