U.S. Military Responding More Fiercely to Iraqi Guerrilla Strikes

Times Staff Writers

U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police arrived at the sprawling three-family farmhouse just after 4 p.m. with orders for the 15 or so people still living there: Grab what you can in the next 30 minutes, and then leave. Your house is about to be bombed.

Two hours later on Monday, a pair of F-16 warplanes screamed overhead and dropped 1,000-pound laser-guided armaments on the boxy, concrete structure. The bombs left a deep crater strewn with smashed furniture, broken concrete and other debris. The lawn, shed and date trees around it remained intact.

U.S. military authorities said the bombing of the Najim family house was a prime example of a firm new response to those who plant roadside bombs, hide weapons or carry out ambushes that kill or harm American soldiers, and they want the people in these parts to know about it. It was the third fixed-wing bombing in a week across Iraq, pointing up a re-escalation of the war by the U.S. in response to heightened insurgency.

"The message is this: If you shoot at an American or a coalition force member, you are going to be killed or you are going to be captured, and if we trace somebody back to a specific safe house, we are going to destroy that facility," said Maj. Lou Zeisman, a paratroop officer of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division deployed here from Fayetteville, N.C. "We are not going to take these continuous attacks."

For some members of Zeisman's 3-505 task force based in this town half an hour south of Baghdad, the bombing was a particularly satisfying act of strategic retribution and deterrence. That is because, they said, they had first managed to obtain confessions and physical evidence implicating male residents of the house in a recent night ambush by eight Iraqi insurgents that took the life of one of their best-loved sergeants.

The ambush and the U.S. military's crushing response offer a detailed glimpse into the give-and-take of battle now occurring in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle" west and north of Baghdad, parts of which seem to be sliding inexorably back toward all-out war.

Bands of Iraqi fighters, often affiliated with the former Iraqi army and bearing more sophisticated equipment, are acting with increased audacity and frequency against U.S.-led coalition forces. In response, the U.S. is using escalating force, including some of the most concentrated fixed-wing bombing attacks since President Bush declared the major combat phase of the war over May 1.

U.S. forces are sometimes able to turn the tables on their assailants and use human intelligence and overwhelming military force to defeat them, as the military said was the case with the house bombed Monday.

The evidence against the members of the Najim household included homemade bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, and night-vision goggles found before the strike in and around the premises, some even hidden in the false bed of a pickup truck, said Zeisman, speaking the day after the bombing that destroyed the house situated along a major supply route used by coalition forces.

'We Lost a Good Soldier'

Referring to Sgt. 1st Class Jose A. Rivera, 34, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, who was killed in a firefight last Wednesday by attackers believed to have carried out their ambush from the house, Zeisman said, "We lost a soldier that evening, a very good soldier, who was loved by a lot of people."

But he insisted it wasn't entirely revenge. "We didn't destroy a house just because we were angry that someone was killed," he said. "We did it because the people there were linked to the attack and we are not going to tolerate it anymore."

For people who harbor attackers or allow their houses to be used for planning attacks, he said, "we are going to destroy their property -- period."

The sentiment was echoed by Col. Jefforey Smith, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, in Fallouja, which also has responsibility for the Mamudiyah area.

"There is no sanctuary," Smith said. "This is serious business here. The enemy needs to know we're not playing around."

It is a message that was pushed on leaders of towns in western and central Iraq who met last weekend with Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command. The general's unmistakable demand: Get with the program, or lose out on the benefits of the new Iraq.

In the Arab world, the tactic is likely to be compared to that used by Israel, which frequently bulldozes the family homes of Palestinian suicide bombers and other buildings from which Palestinian attacks are believed to emanate.

The Najim house is southeast of Mamudiyah, on the southern fringe of the Sunni Triangle, which has been the center of armed resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. Smith said the area had been calm for months but that the last few weeks had seen a surge in guerrilla actions. In addition, he had noticed a lot of mistrust of U.S. forces, to the extent that Mamudiyah police a month ago refused to go on joint patrols with the Army.

The attack that left Rivera dead occurred while the senior sergeant, who was a father figure to his platoon, was riding in a convoy patrolling a section of highway looking for improvised explosives routinely buried on the side of the road or taped to guardrails.

The convoy was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, and the U.S. soldiers responded, hitting at least one insurgent, and driving the attackers into the surrounding farmland. The Americans then sped back to base, taking the critically wounded Rivera and two other injured soldiers to medical treatment.

Rivera, suffering a head wound, could not be saved. Grown men cried that night, Zeisman said.

The next morning, another patrol went back to the site and found debris and footprints where the insurgents had lain in wait. They also discovered abandoned weapons, shell casings and a night-vision scope, an ominous sign that the American edge in being able to see at night may be ebbing as insurgents obtain better equipment.

The link to the Najim house, three miles away, came Thursday, when a unit seeking to ask residents about anti-coalition fliers being distributed in the area approached a group of six men standing outside the house, about 200 yards off the main highway. At first, said Capt. Rick Schute, commander of the battalion's Delta Company, the men seemed cooperative. But then one of Schute's soldiers noted something amiss with a white pickup truck parked in front of the Najim house.

It had a custom-made liner in the bed, and when the soldiers investigated, they found rocket-propelled grenades hidden inside a hollowed-out section. They found more illegal weapons behind the seat of the vehicle.

That prompted a thorough search of the house and shed. Inside, Zeisman said, the troops found several improvised remote-detonation bombs, equipment for making more bombs, and the other weapons, including a belt-fed machine gun.

Most damning was a night- vision scope that was an exact match with the one left at the scene where the convoy was attacked. The six men were taken into custody.

Smith said the leader of the group is believed to have been a lieutenant colonel in the former Iraqi army.

"He was proud to admit he was a former officer in the Iraqi army," Smith said. "He was still carrying all of his identification. And he expressed his personal belief during our interrogation of him that the Iraqi army was going to come back to power, and he was going to be part of it again.... He was basically a former regime loyalist. And he was proud of it."

During questioning, Zeisman said, at least one of the men admitted participating in the ambush, and they had been stopped just as they were gathering to go to the funeral for one of their comrades wounded in last Wednesday's engagement.

As a result, the Americans said, preparations were made to call in F-16s to destroy the house. Soldiers and Iraqi police blocked off the highway, assisted women and children in gathering their belongings, and transported their cattle away. The planes dropped the bombs at 6:20 p.m.

Within a day, another firefight took place just outside Zeisman's base. It left what appeared to be at least two Iraqis dead on the street.

Zeisman said he was not cleared to talk about the early-afternoon incident.

At the ruins of the bombed-out house Tuesday, the 65-year-old mother of former Iraqi air force Lt. Col. Shaalan Najim stared dejectedly, tears running down her tattooed face. Shaalan, 40, and a second son, Suhail, 45, the owner of the house, were in American custody. The home they had lived in for about 15 years was squashed as if by a giant foot. Belongings pulled from the ruins were piled up on the grass: bedding, carpets, a child's bicycle.

A younger brother of the arrested men, Emad, 30, loudly proclaimed their innocence, while a bevy of wives, cousins and grandchildren also complained and protested angrily that they had done nothing and had been given only half an hour to leave.

"My husband had nothing to do with politics," said stricken-looking Suaad Haadi, the wife of Suhail Najim. "He was a farmer, and he used his pickup truck to deliver milk from our cows."

'Terrorist House'

Emad proclaimed loudly to the small group that had gathered: "This is the freedom of America? Terrorizing and intimidating children in their garden? Women left without their husbands? Innocent men taken in? ... Where will they all stay now?"

"I did not even have time to collect my gold," said one cousin's wife.

They roundly denied that they had even been given a reason for the house's destruction until a teenage neighbor, Ghassan Ali, admitted that the Americans' interpreter, through a loudspeaker, had announced to the whole neighborhood that it was a "terrorist house."

Although they would not budge from their story that their husbands were innocent, the wife of one of the incarcerated men said otherwise when pressed by an Iraqi driver.

"If it wasn't for that damned truck ... ," she told him.

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Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Fallouja.

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