The war was supposed to be over. But the deaths of four U.S. soldiers and the wounding of 15 others in just two days in armed attacks across Iraq raise the troubling prospect that a fresh wave of violent resistance to U.S. occupation is beginning.
A rocket-propelled grenade attack early Tuesday in this Euphrates River city had the earmarks of a planned military operation. The casualty toll -- two Americans dead and nine wounded -- was not dissimilar to many days of the war itself. It was followed later in the day by another rocket-propelled grenade attack in Baghdad, this one aimed at U.S. military police.
American foot soldiers also reported coming under sporadic fire while on patrol in the capital.
The attacks appeared to be independent of one another, and it was impossible to say immediately whether they might have been planned by people loyal to the former regime or whether they were separate acts of violence by angry people living in a society in which guns are everywhere. Like two other fatal assaults on U.S. forces that took place Monday, in Baghdad and Hadithah, Tuesday’s violence came against the backdrop of rising anger and frustration in the country after seven weeks of U.S. control.
Many Iraqis are livid at the perceived shortcomings of the U.S. occupation, particularly what they see as a slowness to pay salaries and provide basic services, and at the recent decisions of the U.S. civil administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, to dissolve the national army and put off until at least July forming an interim Iraqi government.
The Americans came under heavy fire at a Fallouja checkpoint around midnight while conducting vehicle searches.
They responded with their Bradley fighting vehicles, armed with .50-caliber guns, and with small-arms fire, killing three Iraqis and capturing six others who apparently were violating international laws of war by firing from a mosque, defense officials said.
An Army medical evacuation helicopter was damaged by a Bradley that struck it while maneuvering into a firing position.
The names of the wounded and dead were withheld pending notification of relatives.
Late Tuesday, an attack took place in Baghdad: Two U.S. military police officers were injured, one seriously, after two rocket-propelled grenade attacks on a police station in northwest Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Clint Mundinger of the Army’s 709th Military Police Battalion, told Associated Press.
After Tuesday’s firefight in Fallouja, some residents portrayed the clash as the beginning of a jihad, or holy war, to oust the Americans.
“They are not wanted here. No one wanted them to come here,” said a man who gave his name only as Abu Abba at the site where the Americans were killed.
Waving a piece of metal that he said was from the damaged helicopter, he said: “This is our pride.... Everybody says that the American military is invincible. This is the proof that it is not. We are shooting them with our own guns.”
An insular, conservative Sunni Muslim city of 200,000 known as home to a smuggling trade taking sheep and other commodities across the desert into Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Fallouja has been a hotbed of anti-U.S. feeling.
Last month, U.S. troops twice opened fire on crowds who appeared intent on attacking them, killing at least 18 Iraqis and injuring 78 more.
Mayor Taha Badawi Alwani, in an interview in his office, said the city was never particularly pro-Saddam Hussein. But neither do its fiercely independent tribesmen want to see American fighting vehicles and Humvees on their streets, he said. He estimated that 80% of the city’s population, frustrated with living conditions, wants the Americans to leave.
The mayor said he has been trying to calm emotions, urging tribal sheiks and religious leaders to tell their followers to cooperate with the Americans for the good of the city, and most agree. But not all, he said.
Abdul Wahid, head of the city’s education department, was seething in a reception room in the city hall.
“No security. No salaries. Not any services,” he said. “Our country may be the only one in the world to export petroleum and not have enough gas for our cars.... Tell your nation that Bush did nothing to keep his promises.”
The anger and the recent violence has sharpened awareness among U.S. forces here of the need for constant vigilance.
At a former Iraqi airfield in Baghdad’s Al Salaam district Tuesday, attackers aimed rifle or handgun fire at a unit of the newly arrived 1st Armored Division, said Lt. Chris Labra of the division’s Battery C of the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery.
As Labra and fewer than a dozen men made their rounds on foot, he had to pause occasionally for single shots that sounded as if they had come from a neighborhood a few hundred yards away.
“We think they’re testing us,” said Labra, whose unit took over duties from members of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division this week. “Everyone knows we’re new on the job.”
Soldiers are particularly wary of the blue and white buses with gold stars on the back, allegedly bought by Hussein’s son Qusai for Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary fighters.
They are believed to be carrying the gunmen behind at least some of the attacks against the Americans.
The 1st Armored Division soldiers, whose arrival has doubled the number of soldiers patrolling the capital’s streets, fret over a spot on the post they consider vulnerable to grenade attacks. Patrolling in Humvees and on foot, they alter their routes and security checkpoint routines so attackers cannot predict their movements.
“We’ve got to keep mixing it up,” Labra said. “It seems like there hasn’t been any organized resistance against us, but that’s why we do these patrols.”
Much of what the soldiers deal with is like what a police patrol would encounter in a tough American inner city, and poses little threat to them. The tally as of 8 p.m. Tuesday: complaints about electricity, water, joblessness, a tank hitting a resident’s car -- and two dead bodies. One man was found dead in a car, apparently from a gunshot wound.
A child told soldiers that he watched as a man stabbed, then shot a second victim, who lay in the street as an ambulance driver pulled up, removed his watch and wallet, and drove on, leaving the body behind.
But as troops returned to the bombed-out airstrip they call home, Adkram Khadi, a polite, mustachioed middle-aged man in a white tunic, offered a warning to the soldiers that they must resolve the problems that dog the neighborhood.
“If these problems continue, people will complain that this is an occupation, not a liberation,” he said. “You know how people get in the summer when it’s [120 degrees] at night. You get crazy.”
Asked if he was concerned about an attack, Staff Sgt. Stephen Peacock, a 36-year-old 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran, answered, “We think about that 24/7.”
Labra worried about the dozen curious children who mingled with his men as they walked, saying, “If something happens, you don’t want them to get hurt.”
Rising discontent comes in part from soldiers uncertain of their pensions and future work now that Bremer has disbanded the Iraqi army.
The neighborhood, whose houses were built and subsidized for Iraqi soldiers before Hussein’s quarter-century regime, is home to many men such as former Maj. Ammar Khader, who frets that he is feeding a family of seven on his father’s pension, now $40 a month.
“How can I feed my family?” he asked Labra, perhaps 20 years his junior. “We are a normal army. We do not belong to Saddam’s regime.”
Labra’s refrain, repeated to satisfy complaints over power, water, safety and joblessness, is the same: “Every day it’ll get better.” But back at the airstrip, he gives Capt. Aaron Francis a frank debriefing.
“People will shoot, and it’s like 200 meters away,” Labra said. “On two occasions I said, ‘Who was that?’ and people said, ‘I will not tell you because this is my neighbor.’ ”
Daniszewski reported from Fallouja and Hendren from Baghdad.