FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s interim government declared martial law on Sunday after insurgents killed 23 Iraqi policemen and set off blasts in Baghdad in a fresh show of force before a planned U.S. offensive on Falluja and Ramadi.
“We have decided to declare a state of emergency in all areas of Iraq, with the exception of the region of Kurdistan for a period of 60 days,” Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s spokesman Thaer al-Naqib told a news conference.
He said the state of emergency, equivalent to martial law, was intended to ensure security ahead of elections in January.
The government gave itself emergency powers soon after replacing Iraq’s U.S.-led administration on June 28, but it has not yet used them despite a raging insurgency.
Moments after the announcement carried on live Iraqi television, a car bomb exploded near the house of Iraq’s finance minister in central Baghdad. It was not immediately clear if Adel Abdul Mahdi or anyone else had been hurt.
Insurgents have launched a wave of violence in central Iraq to show their muscle before U.S.-led forces assault Falluja and Ramadi. The Americans say they are only awaiting the word from Allawi, who returned from Europe on Saturday, to attack.
Police said gunmen killed 23 policemen in three attacks in Iraq. The bloodiest assault was in Haditha, 200 km (125 miles) northwest of Baghdad, where insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars attacked a police station at dawn.
After a 90-minute battle in which six policemen were wounded, the attackers took 21 captured policemen to the K-3 oil pumping station area and shot them dead execution-style.
Brigadier Shaher al-Jughaifi, security chief in western Iraq, died in an attack on a police post in nearby Haqlaniya.
Gunmen killed another Iraqi police officer and wounded one in the town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, police said. A suicide car bomber attacked a U.S. convoy on the highway to Baghdad airport. A U.S. spokesman could not confirm the report.
In Falluja, residents said fighting erupted on the eastern edge of the city near the highway leading to Baghdad after intense overnight air strikes and artillery shelling.
On Saturday, bombings and attacks on police stations killed 34 people, mostly police, in the restive city of Samarra, some 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad. Allawi’s office said 49 people were also wounded. All the casualties were men.
U.S. troops enforced a round-the-clock curfew in Samarra and nearby villages on Sunday, paralyzing normal life.
Local officials said they were asking the Americans to lift the curfew at least briefly so that people could go to mosques and shops. They also wanted U.S. troops to reopen roads around the sealed-off city to let stranded people get home.
The Samarra violence erupted barely a month after U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed the city to dislodge rebels in what was then seen as a model for similar actions in Falluja and Ramadi.
The Haditha killings recalled last month’s slaughter of 49 unarmed army recruits on a lonely road northeast of Baghdad.
Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, which previously claimed responsibility for that mass killing, also said it was behind Saturday’s car bombings in Samarra.
The U.S. military says 1,000 to 6,000 fighters, including some loyal to Zarqawi, are holed up in Falluja.
Falluja residents said U.S. air strikes interspersed with artillery shelling set off huge explosions from about 3 a.m. (0000 GMT) onwards. There was no word on casualties.
U.S. attacks have killed dozens of guerrillas, but have failed to scare them away, a senior Marine commander said.
Regiment Commander Colonel Michael Shupp said escape routes out of the city were still open but rebels were not leaving despite days of fierce air and artillery bombardment.
About 450 troops from Britain’s Black Watch regiment moved across the Euphrates river, southwest of Baghdad, in what a Sky News reporter embedded with them called a major redeployment.
(With reporting by Faris al-Mahdawi in Baquba, Michael Georgy near Falluja, Akram Saleh in Baghdad and Sabah al-Bazee in Samarra)