Gunmen storm Iraqi police station and free prisoners, at least 28 murdered

Insurgents stormed a jail about dawn Tuesday in the Sunni Muslim heartland north of Baghdad , killing at least 19 policemen and a courthouse guard. Authorities said all 33 prisoners in the lockup were freed and 10 attackers were killed in the battle. In the capital, a powerful group of U.S. senators met with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to discuss prospects for formation of a national unity government, a step viewed as all-important in working toward peace and a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq .

Al-Jaafari said he believed Iraq 's most difficult political hurdles had been crossed and predicted a new government would be ready in the coming weeks.

"I hope that the formation of the new government does not last beyond April," al-Jaafari said.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan , ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "April is fine, but it is necessary that this commitment be kept in order for there to be continued support for the presence of American troops in Iraq ."

"There's got to be some pressure put on leaders of this country to reach a political settlement," he added.

The committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said decisions on the U.S. troop presence would be made not only by President Bush, Congress and other leaders, but also by the American people a seeming allusion to declining U.S. popular support for the Iraq war.

"If it's perceived in America that they are proceeding with this government in less than a sincere and prompt way, then the people of the United States of America will speak up and speak up very loudly," Warner said he told al-Jaafari in the meeting.

In show of Shiite support for al-Jaafari's bid for a second term as prime minister, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi told reporters after meeting Iraq 's top Shiite cleric that "Dr. Al-Jafari is still the (Shiite) Alliance nominee. The alliance has not presented anyone else."

The Shiite alliance is under pressure from Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Muslims to drop al-Jaafari because they claim he can not unify the country.

Also in the holy city of Najaf, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Shiite bloc in parliament, met the top cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who told him to "speed the moves to form the new government," said Haitham al-Husseini, an al-Hakim aide.

As many as 100 insurgent fighters armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the judicial compound in Muqdadiyah, about 90 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of the capital. The assault began after the attackers fired a mortar round into the police and court complex, said police Brig. Ali al-Jabouri.

After burning the police station, the insurgents detonated a string of roadside bombs as they fled, taking the bodies of many of their dead comrades with them, police said. At least 13 policemen and civilians and 15 gunmen were wounded in the attack.

Later Tuesday, a roadside bomb killed one policeman and wounded three in Baquoba, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad , authorities said.

Five other police were wounded in two separate roadside bomb attacks targeting patrols in northern and southern Baghdad early Tuesday, police said.

Tuesday's assaults came a day after 39 people were reported killed by insurgents and shadowy sectarian gangs in Iraq, continuing the wave of violence that has left more than 1,000 Iraqis dead since the bombing last month of a Shiite Muslim shrine.

Police found the bodies of at least 15 more people including that of a 13-year-old girl dumped in and near Baghdad . The discoveries marked the latest in a string of execution-style killings that have become an almost daily occurrence as Sunni and Shiite extremists settle scores.

As night fell on Monday, a bomb struck a coffee shop in northern Baghdad , killing at least three civilians and injuring 23 others. The bomb was left in a plastic bag inside the shop in a market area of the Azamiyah neighborhood, police Maj. Falah al-Mohammadewi said.

At about the same time, gunmen killed two oil engineers leaving work at the Beiji refinery north of Baghdad . An electrical engineer and technician were gunned down at the nearby power station, Beiji police Lt. Khalaf Ayed Al-Janabi said.

Separately, the owner of a small grocery in downtown Baghdad was shot and killed.

In southeast Baghdad , also toward evening, a roadside bomb blew apart a minibus, killing four pilgrims returning from the holy city of Karbala , where millions of Shiite faithful gathered to mark the 40th and final day of the annual mourning period for Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Five pilgrims on their way to Karbala were wounded in a drive-by shooting earlier in the day, police said.

Otherwise, the commemoration passed largely without incident and absent the violent bomb attacks that have hit pilgrims there over the past two years.

Other violence in Iraq Monday targeted more policemen.

Roadside bombs one just a few hundred yards from an Interior Ministry lockup in central Baghdad and one in a farming area near the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad killed at least seven police and one prisoner.

A policeman in a joint American-Iraqi patrol was killed in Baghdad during fighting with insurgents, and a car bomb targeting a police checkpoint exploded in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad , killing another policeman, authorities said.

The international airport in Baghdad remained closed Tuesday after authorities shut it down citing the need to protect the Karbala commemoration, apparently from any attackers who might try to fly into the country.

And Jordanian authorities closed their border with Iraq until further notice to "prevent those without valid travel documents from entering the country," said Maj. Bashir al-Da'ajah, spokesman of Jordan 's Public Security Department. The New York Times reported the border was closed because a large number of Palestinians living in Iraq were trying to cross into Jordan without proper documents, reports the AP.

D.M.