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With Each Attack, U.S. Image in Iraq Erodes

Times Staff Writer

The attack came not long after darkness fell, a time when the air is balmy after the heat of the day and people linger to exchange news, gossip and run a last errand before curfew.

In this peaceful scene, a mortar shell exploded with extraordinary force, its shrapnel flying for hundreds of feet and leaving nine Iraqi civilians dead and at least 18 wounded Thursday at a busy market in this turbulent town northeast of Baghdad.

On Friday, all that was left was a broad, shallow crater in the road, suspicions about who was responsible and disdain for the Americans’ ability to stop such acts.

“These were innocent people who were killed,” said Dhamid Salih, 47, who owns a small kebab restaurant a few feet from where the shell hit. “There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea that Iraq is stabilizing. They are doing this to create chaos. The Americans should do something.”

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The attackers probably were aiming for a U.S. military compound several hundred yards away, Iraqi police and U.S. military officials said.

More than six months after the war began, loyalists to the former regime of Saddam Hussein have found a multitude of ways to create a sense of insecurity in Iraq, despite the efforts by U.S.-led coalition forces and civilian workers to stabilize the situation.

The loyalists have assassinated politicians, most recently Aqila Hashimi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who died Thursday of her gunshot wounds. They are believed to have been involved in suicide bombings, including one at the United Nations’ Baghdad headquarters last month that killed chief envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.

They have kept up a daily drumbeat of attacks on coalition forces -- one American was killed Friday in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the northern city of Kirkuk, and another died in a fire in Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown. The deaths bring the U.S. military toll to 308, more than half of those since President Bush declared major combat over May 1.

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A climate of apprehension pervades many areas of the country. Those Iraqis who work with the U.S.-led coalition routinely receive threats; every day, U.S. forces are targeted by attacks that injure if not kill; and everyone living in Iraq is regularly hamstrung by sabotage of power stations and oil pipelines.

Though the Americans are not necessarily blamed for specific attacks, many Iraqis hold them responsible for the instability.

“I feel anxious all the time because of the lack of security and because the acts of sabotage are getting more violent,” said Maher Jamal Abid, 35, who runs a small private hospital in Baqubah where some of the injured from Thursday’s blast were being treated.

Abid, who has not been a target of violence, said his solution would be to have Hussein come back. “But I would like that he only do security,” he said.

An earnest man who apologized that his hospital was not more modern, he added that if “Saddam gave one speech, security would be improved.”

“We would like to see action from the Americans,” he said.

The now-widespread availability of satellite TV has meant that people all over the country see the attacks or their aftermath, and that reinforces the sense of precariousness. Such news routinely displaces information about improvements in the country, leaving many Iraqis with the overall feeling that their situation is no better or even worse than it was before the war.

That sense of impotence in the face of continuing violence was felt Friday in Baqubah, about 30 miles from the capital. It is a place where there is still open support for the former regime. Graffiti in many places throughout the city proclaims: “Long live the hero. Long live Saddam.”

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“I was talking with friends about my ambition to find a job and we were talking about security and how actually in recent days we felt there was an improvement,” said Hussein Abdulrida, 42, whose hand was so badly damaged by shrapnel from the market blast that he may lose his index finger.

The scene of carnage shocked the U.S. military police who arrived at the scene in minutes, and it overwhelmed the local public hospital.

“We had seen individual injuries like these, but suddenly the emergency room was completely full and covered in blood,” said Saad Mahmoud, a doctor who works in several Baqubah hospitals and was on duty at the public hospital when the casualties came in.

Abdulrida said the only solution was to have Iraqis take care of law enforcement.

“The Americans want to apply their laws to us. They are too soft,” he said. “There is something inside ourselves that we do not like, but we need a strong central authority.”

But he doesn’t blame the Americans for the attack, as some in Baqubah do.

“Maybe it was people from the past regime,” he said. “Because they thought he [Hussein] was the only one who could rule Iraq.”

Others seemed reluctant to blame Hussein loyalists and instead accused “outsiders” from Iran or Saudi Arabia.

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American military sources said they were nearly certain that the assault was the work of former regime supporters, perhaps the paramilitary group Fedayeen Saddam.

It appears that the attackers fired a Soviet-made 120-millimeter mortar round, an exceptionally large size, probably from a truck, said Army Capt. Josh Felker, spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.

He added that although the brigade’s main base is hit by mortar rounds several times a week, the rounds are almost always 60 or 80 millimeters.

The larger round requires considerable skill to aim correctly; it can land anywhere within a 500-yard radius. During warfare, a forward spotter usually watches where the first mortar round lands and then radios back to the soldier firing to make adjustments, Felker said.

Iraqi and U.S. police investigators believe that Thursday’s attackers were firing at the Civilian Military Affairs Company, which is involved in building projects on behalf of Iraqis, and that the attackers were unperturbed at the prospect of missing because they assumed the violence would be attributed to the U.S. military and undermine its authority and credibility.

U.S. and Iraqi officials blame Hussein loyalists for the assassination of Hashimi, the Governing Council member.

In Kadhimiya, a majority Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad where Hashimi’s body had been expected to be brought for prayers Friday before being taken to the holy Shiite city of Najaf, the mood was bleak -- and fatalistic about the ability of Iraqis to stand up to the destabilizing forces.

Hashimi’s funeral procession ultimately skipped the Kadhimiya stop because of security concerns.

“Her assassination will have no echo. No one will do anything because we got used to losing such dear people as she was,” said Mushtaq Talib, 33, the owner of a religious bookstore. “We lost them over and over under the old regime, so we have learned to keep quiet on such occasions.... If we express our sorrow, we will be killed. Even now we do not touch freedom.”


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