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Strikes at ‘Collaborators’ Sow Fear but Not Flight

Times Staff Writer

The bombings outside an Iraqi army recruitment center and a police station this week were among the deadliest attacks on Iraqi civilians since Saddam Hussein’s government fell in April.

But in the last few weeks, insurgents have also shot translators for the U.S.-led occupation and opened fire on laundresses at a U.S. military base as they were commuting to work.

The insurgents appear to be increasingly targeting Iraqis perceived to be collaborators -- people seen as supporting or advancing American interests, including the U.S.-backed plan for a new Iraqi government. The killings appear aimed at discouraging Iraqis from helping to create a new political order.

However, the results thus far are mixed.

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In some cases, those who survive quit their jobs en masse, as the surviving laundresses did. Yet, in a surprising number of instances, Iraqis have persevered undeterred.

The insurgents are up against a force every bit as strong as fear: the need of Iraqis to work to feed their families. The result is that although many men do not tell their mothers, fathers and wives that they have taken jobs that support the U.S.-led occupation, most of them do not leave those jobs even when they are directly threatened.

“What we are seeing is that all of these people who are being killed are viewed as collaborators,” said Robin Bhatty, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan International Crisis Group’s office in Amman, Jordan, who recently visited Iraq. “But these atrocities and attacks don’t seem to be having the desired effect on people. People are still applying for these jobs. What we don’t know is if the economy were better, whether people would still take these positions.”

He added that it was also hard to measure whether the bombings would discourage police from acting forcefully.

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Salim Abbas Abid, 31, who has worked for three years as a police lieutenant, said his family’s economic circumstances meant that he only briefly considered quitting his job after a November suicide bombing in his bedraggled hometown of Khan Bani Saad. The blast in the village near Baqubah, north of Baghdad, demolished a large chunk of his police station, killing six of his colleagues.

“I thought about quitting for a couple of days, and my mother and father begged me to -- they still ask me every day. But my brother and I are the only ones working in my family,” Abid said. “Because of the hardships of living, I kept working -- those police who were not injured, they all kept coming to work.”

He and others are quick to say they are not courageous so much as impoverished and fed up with living on the edge. After desolate decades under Hussein, they say, they are resigned to the idea that they cannot avoid suffering and loss.

It is a sentiment hard for Westerners to comprehend -- especially in the face of a string of suicide bombings that in a 24-hour period this week took the lives of more than 100 Iraqis in Iskandariya and Baghdad.

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On Wednesday night, two American soldiers from the 1st Armored Division were killed by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad, the military said. Their deaths bring the American toll in Iraq to at least 537.

In the weeks and months after the U.S.-led invasion began in late March, insurgents picked off Iraqi police, mayors, an Iraqi Governing Council member and oil and electrical workers. But the number and brutality of the attacks seem to be accelerating. Since the beginning of February, more than 200 civilians have been killed.

Officials in the U.S.-led coalition implied at a news conference here Wednesday that the two most recent suicide bombings were the work of foreign terrorists linked to the Al Qaeda network. They spoke several times about a widely publicized letter believed to have been written by Abu Musab Zarqawi -- a Jordanian suspected of links to foreign terrorist organizations -- to his superiors, describing the effort to disrupt Iraq’s move toward sovereignty.

“We have predicted that, as we come closer and closer to governance and as we come closer and closer to handing over sovereignty of this country to the Iraqi people, there would be a spike in violence,” said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a U.S. military spokesman.

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“We have been planning for it, we’re prepared for it, and the coalition activities up to this point have demonstrated the number of attacks that we’ve prevented from happening. It has demonstrated that we’re fully capable of maintaining a safe and secure environment in the main -- within the country of Iraq,” he said. He added, however, that he expected commanders on the ground to reevaluate whether the protections were sufficient.

Despite the assertions of vigilance, another coalition official acknowledged that it was not possible to protect against all attacks. “They won’t break through every single time, but they will break through from time to time,” said Dan Senor, senior spokesman for L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq.

“They did it today. They did it yesterday. They’ve done it in other parts of the world ... certainly since 9/11 on multiple occasions,” Senor said. “But the important point is to continue to hunt down those who are organizing or harboring or supporting these attacks and either capture them or kill them.”

Many Iraqis said they believed the attacks on civilian targets were timed to influence the visit of a United Nations delegation that is now assessing whether Iraq is secure enough to hold elections before the June 30 deadline for the U.S. to hand over sovereignty. One issue the team must consider is the safety of voters and polling places and whether a relative lack of safety may keep potential voters away.

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Iraq’s Sunni Muslims generally oppose an early election, as does the United States, which supports a caucus system for selecting a transitional government. The Shiite Muslim majority is pushing for swift elections.

But the best intentions are little comfort to those who have watched friends and relatives die. Indeed, the slayings are now so numerous that many appear to go largely uninvestigated.

The killings of the laundresses, which occurred Jan. 21, left an indelible imprint on Baghdad’s small Christian community, four of whose members were slain. Christians have worked for the U.S.-led coalition in large numbers given their small segment of the population -- less than 10% -- in part because many have language and technology skills in high demand.

Vera Ibrahim, 39, an Armenian Christian, left her small Baghdad apartment in the gray dawn as she did every day to travel to her job folding and sorting clothes at a military base near Fallouja, in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle area.

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She and eight other Christian laundresses dozed in the minibus as they rode to work. There was another minibus behind them and one ahead of them transporting a total of about 20 women to the base.

“Usually we sleep in the bus, so I didn’t see the attacking car, but the driver told me it was four men, wearing kaffiyehs” -- checkered headdresses -- “so that only their eyes were visible. As we drove past their car, they began shooting,” Ibrahim said.

Instinctively, “as soon as I heard the first shots, I plunged to the floor,” she said. “I just heard the glass smashing and the sound of bullets. All the women started to scream.”

In less than two minutes, four were dead; a fifth was critically injured and remains in intensive care.

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When Ibrahim arrived at the local hospital, the nightmare went on. Instead of sympathy, she said, she was questioned roughly by local police about why she was going to the U.S. base and how much she earned there.

“I could see it in their faces -- they despised me,” she said.

Later, when she and the driver, who also survived, left the hospital to go home to Baghdad, taxis refused to pick them up.

Despite her family’s need for her $250 monthly paycheck, she is staying at home now, worrying about her husband, who has a similar job at another American base. All the women who worked with her quit, as did the drivers.

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Members of the Armenian Social Club lowered their voices when they spoke about the incident, as if even to mention it was a bad omen. The community is close-knit, and they knew all the victims.

“I don’t object to working for the Americans in principle,” said 23-year-old Angeen Gizak, who said she had been trying to find a job for two years. “But can they provide security for me? For instance, in my neighborhood there are always people watching, and they see if a car comes to collect me and bring me home.”

Two Armenian Christian translators for the Americans recently quit their jobs after receiving threats, Gizak’s father said.

They were lucky. Local papers have reported at least five translators killed in the last three weeks. The coalition has declined to confirm that number.

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Amer Mousa Jafer, 27, a translator, was shot point-blank Jan. 18 after returning home from work at 9:30 p.m.

A tall, genial young man with a passion for English, which he had taught himself, Jafer was relaxing with his wife, his parents and sister when there was a knock at the gate of their Baghdad home. His father went out to see who it was, and the visitor said he was a friend of his son. His father called him, and Jafer went out to see. As he reached the front gate, one bullet tore through his forehead, another through his eye.

“I heard a light buzzing sound, and I rushed to the gate and I saw Amer lying in a pool of blood. The gun had had a silencer on it,” his father said.

Although their grief is still fresh, the family members say they would never discourage someone from working for the Americans.

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“We don’t blame the Americans. It’s not the Americans who killed our son -- it’s our people,” his father said.

His wife stared at a small picture of their son and recalled how “he wanted to travel to Sweden and the USA. I wish he could have traveled.”

The situation for the Iraqi police is far more complex. Although the reconstituted force is trained by the Americans and by contractors who work for them, its members are in most respects independent. There are police who dislike the Americans, those who support them, and others who are neutral. Most do the job because they need the pay and want to help their communities.

But it is also the case that some police seem at least as close to the insurgents as they do to the Americans. In Kirkuk last week, several Iraqi police officers were arrested on suspicion of conspiring with the insurgency.

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The most typical attitude is probably that of men like Abbas Abdul Ghaffer, a 37-year-old career army officer. He came to the army recruitment center Wednesday after seeing a television ad calling for volunteers and ended up wounded.

“Why do you think we’d try to enroll in the army? Because we need the money,” he said.

Lying on his hospital cot, his head wrapped in bloody bandages, Abdul Ghaffer said he didn’t mind working with the Americans, but he wanted to keep them at arm’s length.

“My view is that Americans are human beings, and there’s nothing wrong with dealing with them,” he said. “But we have to take one fact seriously. Regardless of what kind of person he is, he’s an occupier.”

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In the streets of Iskandariya, where house after house was strung with black mourning flags, there was also a determination to pick up life where it had left off at the police station when the bomb exploded Tuesday.

Abbas Abdullah, a day laborer, visited the town’s mayor Wednesday to offer his condolences for the tragedy, but he also had another agenda: He wanted to know when the sign-up for police jobs, which had been interrupted by the violence, would be rescheduled.

“In fact I was intending to sign up yesterday for the police work, but I did not get there in time,” he said.

Times staff writer Megan K. Stack contributed to this report.

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