Iraq’s Model City Starts to Get Ugly
After months of being celebrated as the model city of postwar Iraq, this ancient citadel on the Tigris is enduring a wave of attacks targeting U.S. forces and their allies -- an alarming trend that intensified Sunday with the killing of two American soldiers as they drove through town in broad daylight.
Military officials confirmed that two soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were shot at as they drove between U.S. garrisons here. But witnesses and the military differed on details of the incident.
One witness, Ahmed Mohammed Ali, 21, said today that the soldiers’ car was shot at and then crashed into a concrete wall on a street in an industrial area.
When American troops did not immediately appear, a crowd of teenagers began to gather, he said. Attackers pulled the driver, who was wounded, out of the vehicle, beat him and slit his throat, Ali said.
The passenger also was pulled out and died after being beaten with stones and shoes, he said. The soldiers’ weapons and body armor were stolen.
Ali and other witnesses said other Americans didn’t arrive for at least an hour.
A military official in Mosul reached by telephone denied those accounts. He said both soldiers appeared to have died from gunshot wounds. Other troops arrived within minutes to secure the scene, the official said.
The military official said both soldiers were dragged from their vehicle and their equipment was stolen but that there was no evidence their bodies had been abused.
“Their bodies were defiled by gunshots,” the official said.
Some residents seemed upset about the attack.
Fahmi Hanna, 60, who runs a plumbing supply store, said: “It’s too bad. These are human beings. I couldn’t bear to look.”
An official in Baghdad said this morning that it was unclear whether the soldiers were able to fire back at their attackers.
“I haven’t seen any confirmed indications that this was a Mogadishu-type incident,” said the official, referring to a 1993 incident in Somalia in which residents dragged the bodies of U.S. servicemen through the streets of the capital after two Black Hawks were felled by rocket-propelled grenades.
The slaying of the two GIs in Mosul came eight days after two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in a residential neighborhood here -- apparently while under enemy fire -- costing the lives of 17 airmen.
Another American soldier was killed Sunday by a roadside bomb near Baqubah, and an Iraqi police official in charge of oilfield security in Mosul was reported killed as he left a mosque earlier in the weekend.
In Baghdad, civilian flights remained suspended following a missile attack on a DHL cargo plane taking off for Bahrain on Saturday. The stricken plane returned to the runway safely.
Even before the latest deaths, a sharp rise in attacks had rocked this city of 1.7 million and forced U.S. troops back onto a war footing after months of focusing on economic and political development.
In the last week, troops have raided suspected opposition hide-outs, conducted hundreds of house-to-house searches and dispatched U.S.-trained Iraqi troops into 10 mosques -- once a taboo. The raids have yielded numerous arms caches and resulted in the detention of more than 100 men.
Among those detained, the U.S. says, are two suspected Al Qaeda operatives, both Iraqi citizens; an insurgent who allegedly sought to send a woman with a bomb to a police station; and a veteran criminal implicated in a plot to assassinate Col. Joe Anderson at his base near downtown.
“They [Iraqis] don’t understand being nice,” said Anderson, who helps oversee the military zone that includes Mosul and environs. He doesn’t hide his irritation after months dedicated to restoring the city: “We spent so long here working with kid gloves, but the average Iraqi guy will tell you, ‘The only thing people respect here is violence.... They only understand being shot at, being killed. That’s the culture.’ ... Nice guys do finish last here.”
The U.S. says that former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and other insurgents have embarked on a campaign of assassinations in recent weeks, mowing down prominent Mosul residents assisting the U.S., including a judge, a gubernatorial aide and the oil field security official.
The bloody tableau clashes with the image of progress and cooperation that previously characterized postwar Mosul, a city with a functioning government, an efficient police force, a vigorous economy and a commanding general with a Princeton degree.
Although Mosul had been a notorious stronghold of the former Baath regime, U.S. troops stationed here were able to spend much of their time refurbishing schools and factories and jump-starting civic life.
The Army pumped more than $30 million in seized ex-regime funds into hundreds of redevelopment projects.
U.S. forces also helped set up a new police force, fire department and city council, overseeing a caucus process that saw the election of an Arab mayor and councilmen representing Kurds, Christians and other minority groups -- widely hailed as the first stab at representative government in post-invasion Iraq.
The government is still going strong, though a gubernatorial aide was recently assassinated and Gov. Ghanim Basoo, like other leaders throughout the country, governs from a heavily fortified City Hall and travels with a phalanx of Kalashnikov-wielding bodyguards.
The scholarly general, David H. Petraeus, is also still here, and Mosul has remained much less bunkered and tense than battered Baghdad, its streets animated with shoppers and office workers and absent the gauntlets of blast barriers and concertina wire.
But military officials say the sharp rise in attacks is a well- organized campaign by former Hussein loyalists to undercut the months of toil aimed at injecting democracy into a city long subjected to iron-fisted Baathist control and an almost Prussian tradition of loyalty to the strongman in Baghdad.
Following the U.S. takeover, officials say, the Baathist cadres lay low for a while before regrouping and setting up networks to secure funding, weapons and personnel to carry out attacks. Now, they have launched their counteroffensive.
“They cannot abide Mosul being a success,” said Petraeus, a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “This is a race to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.... The other side not only wants to prevent us from getting to the finish line, they want to kill us on the way to the finish line.”
The well-armed Hussein loyalists have cash to spread around among ex-soldiers, criminals and others willing to take a shot at U.S. troops or anyone deemed as cooperating with them, U.S. forces say.
“This is an all-or-nothing game for the Fedayeen and the Baath militias,” said Petraeus, who puts the core number of Baathist organizers here at fewer than 100 -- possibly headed by Izzat Ibrahim, a former top aide to Hussein thought to be coordinating attacks nationwide. “These folks have no hope of ever achieving anything like the wealth, prestige, power and just sheer position in society that they had, if the new Iraq succeeds.”
The surge in violence in Mosul -- along with recent bombings in Nasiriyah and Basra in southern Iraq, also areas that had been relatively calm -- indicates to some that the armed opposition wants to send out a message that no place is safe in this country.
U.S. troops in northern Iraq have intercepted several weapons shipments coming from the so-called Sunni Triangle area, where U.S. forces have come under steady guerrilla-style attacks for months.
“Remember this has not been sweetness and light all the way along here,” added Petraeus, noting that six soldiers were killed in one week in July in the Mosul area.
“On the one hand, we’re happy to have a perception that Mosul is wonderful, because that’s good for investment,” he said. “But we’ve been in a sense going after these guys steadily all along here. And it’s clear there was a concerted effort that started some weeks back to try and disrupt the progress here.”
Ambushes killing three U.S. soldiers and wounding seven this month preceded the recent Black Hawk crashes. Authorities suspect ground fire from a rocket-propelled grenade triggered a midair collision above a city neighborhood.
Anti-U.S. feeling runs strong on the largely Arab west side of the multiethnic city, the zone where the two helicopters went down. Some openly cheered the Black Hawks’ demise.
“Mosul will not be safe for the American invaders,” declared a man who would only give his name as Mahmoud, as he and others gathered on the grounds of a mosque near the crash site. “The Americans said they would help us, but what have they done? Stolen our oil and taken our land.”
U.S. commanders here, as elsewhere in Iraq, are convinced that some mosques have been used as staging sites to organize attacks, store and assemble weapons and lure recruits to a new holy war. Under long-standing policy, U.S. forces will not enter houses of worship without proof of an armed threat.
However, troops here have circumvented the restriction by deputizing U.S.-trained Iraqi civil defense officers to search suspect mosques. The Iraqi forces went into 10 mosques in recent days, pulling out three arms caches and arresting nine men with a detonator at one mosque, said Anderson, the colonel.
That mosque, which the colonel calls “the No. 1 anti-U.S. mosque in the city,” is almost directly across the street from the site of the home where Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusai, were killed in a U.S. raid in July. Soldiers found $1.3 million in the home -- money probably intended to finance attacks against U.S. forces, officials suspect.
U.S. forces have mounted neighborhood sweeps, flooding districts targeted as possible opposition strongholds and entering as many as 1,000 homes. Commanders relaxed longtime rules restricting solders from entering and searching houses. Yet extracting useful information on the insurgent leadership can be difficult.
“All these guys we rounded up, they’re saying in the interrogation, if we don’t torture them, we’re not going to get the information,” Anderson said, adding that many Iraqi security officials have told him the same thing: “If you don’t rough these guys up, you’re not going to get the information you need.”
One suspect was arrested in connection with a plot to assassinate Anderson, who has a high profile in Mosul, hosting a weekly radio call-in program and a TV show. The would-be assassin was looking to target the colonel as he entered or left the base or during his daily run. The suspect had figured out his jogging schedule, an indication of how the opposition has managed to place Iraqi informers in U.S. and Iraqi police installations.
“We poured a lot of our heart and soul into trying to help the people,” said Anderson, who was interviewed on the day he awarded medals to two survivors of one of the Black Hawk crashes. “But it can be frustrating when you hear stupid people still saying, ‘You’re occupiers. You want our oil. You’re turning our country over to Israel.’ ...
“Like I told the soldiers when I pinned the Purple Hearts on them this morning: It’s no longer about Iraqis. It’s about Americans. It’s about our comrades. Nothing will deter us, and nothing will slow us down. And we’ll do our job until the day they tell us to go home.”
Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Mosul contributed to this report.