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Deaths Across Iraq Show It Is a Nation of Many Wars, With U.S. in the Middle

Times Staff Writers

Consider a recent day -- an average 24 hours in Iraq.

Here in the capital, the bodies of eight young men were found chained together, stripped of identification papers, shot and dumped in a parking lot, the first of 20 corpses found in the city that day.

In northern Iraq, a man detonated a bomb vest amid a group of women, children and men lining up for cooking oil, killing himself and 21 others. In the south, police found the bullet-torn body of a senior anti-terrorism official. And in Al Anbar province, in the west, a car smashed into a line of police recruits and exploded, killing 13 by fire and shrapnel.

In all, at least 57 people died and 17 were injured in the violence that day, Sept. 18.

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They were all killed in the same country, but not in the same war. The fighting in Iraq is not a single conflict, but an overlapping set of conflicts, fought on multiple battlegrounds, with different combatants. Increasingly, American troops are caught between the competing forces.

In western Iraq’s deserts, Sunni Arab insurgent groups, some homegrown and others dominated by foreign fighters, attack Iraqi government forces and the U.S. troops who back them up. In Baghdad and surrounding provinces, Sunni and Shiite fighters attack each other and their rivals’ civilians in a burgeoning civil war that U.S. troops have tried to quell.

In southern Iraq, the Shiites dominate. But they are divided, with rival militias fighting over oil and commerce. And in the north of the country, Arabs and Kurds battle for control.

Often during the last three years, the U.S. military has shifted troops to try to tamp down one of these conflicts, only to see another escalate. Now, many American officials worry that with the proliferation of armed actors in Iraq’s multiple conflicts, the original U.S. counterinsurgency mission has become something else -- an operation aimed at quelling civil war, which is a much more ambiguous and politically fraught objective.

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American troops find themselves in the crossfire, caught among foreign militants, Sunni Muslim nationalist rebels, Shiite Muslim militiamen and other armed groups -- all fighting each other.

“It’s a very complex situation,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner, commander of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where the violence is coming from.”

West Desert Insurgency

Al Anbar province houses the conflict most familiar to Americans and most costly to U.S. troops -- Marines and Iraqi insurgents, battling in the country’s vast western desert.

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The insurgents, almost all Sunni Arabs, are a mix of groups, some made up primarily of Iraqis, others heavily composed of foreign fighters drawn to the battle against the U.S. occupation. In addition to American troops, they target Iraqi forces and Sunnis who are suspected of cooperating with the government.

Barely a week passes without the U.S. military sending out several terse death notices from Al Anbar.

Attacks against U.S. forces have climbed 27% in Al Anbar since last year, according to the U.S. Marine Corps. American attempts to reduce the toll by turning over security duties there to Iraqi forces have met with little success. Marines say there are 5,000 Iraqi police officers and 13,000 Iraqi soldiers in the province, but that the Iraqi forces remain fragile and unable to sustain themselves. Half the Iraqi soldiers are on leave at any given time, and many don’t return to duty. In May, desertion rates in some Iraqi units reached 40%.

In August, threats from insurgents led half of Fallouja’s police force to stay home for days, a U.S. general said. And Fallouja at least has a police force. Other strategic cities, including Haditha, Hit and Ramadi, remain virtually lawless.

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Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the best known of the insurgent groups, continues to make inroads in the province, consolidating and expanding its reach. Al Qaeda in Iraq was led by Abu Musab Zarqawi until U.S. forces killed him in June. American officials had hoped Zarqawi’s death would severely disrupt the group, but that does not appear to have happened.

“Al Qaeda has murdered, intimidated, co-opted or paid off all the local national insurgent groups,” said Marine Lt. Col. Bryan Salas, a military spokesman in Fallouja. “They run an organized criminal enterprise that has its tentacles in everything from black-market gasoline sales to extortion of police and government paychecks. Al Qaeda provides the leadership and organization for this loose association of organized criminals.”

In addition to the deaths of U.S. troops, the conflict has taken a toll on Al Anbar’s residents, many of whom have fled. Those who stay are at constant risk.

Among the police recruits killed in Ramadi recently was Faiz Mohamad Ali. In an interview, his brother described Ali as an art institute graduate, painter and optimist.

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Ali attempted to join the police after failing to find a market for his paintings, said the brother, who asked not be identified for fear insurgents would track him down.

“Four days before he got killed, we were chatting about Iraq. He was enthusiastic and went on talking about how everybody should take part in building this country,” Ali’s brother said. “I remember him talking about how he could serve Iraq as a painter: ‘My paintings are talking about Iraq in my own way,’ he said. ‘The new, shiny Iraq.’ ”

Militia-Plagued Capital

While the Sunni Arab insurgency is blamed for much of the violence in Al Anbar province, in Baghdad, Shiite militias carry out the majority of killings, according to most U.S. officials. Sunnis account for most of the victims.

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The capital, with its 6 million residents, is home to about a fourth of Iraq’s population. It is the nation’s administrative center and among its most religiously and ethnically diverse cities. This year, it has also been a sectarian killing field.

The United Nations reported that 2,884 people were killed in Baghdad in July, the highest monthly death toll since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In August, 2,222 people were killed and in September, 1,980 -- the decline probably due to increased patrols in the capital.

In addition to the thousands killed, hundreds of thousands of residents of Baghdad and the provinces immediately around it have fled their homes. Shiites and Sunnis have abandoned mixed neighborhoods in favor of others offering more homogeneous populations.

In recent weeks, Diyala, a province with about 1 million residents just north of Baghdad, has been particularly violent.

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On Sept. 18, police in Baqubah, the provincial capital, reported that gunmen had assassinated the Sunni mayor of the nearby village of Udayem, making the official one of hundreds of people killed in the province in recent weeks. It remains unclear why the mayor was targeted or who killed him.

Internal Shiite Warfare

Until recently, southern Iraq seemed relatively peaceful. Now, Shiites, who dominate the region, have splintered into factions that feud over oil resources, smuggling proceeds, political power and religious authority. Violence remains smaller in scale than in the capital, but it is increasing.

Virtually all the south’s political and religious institutions are divided among four Shiite groups: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite party in the country; followers of Muqtada Sadr, the radical cleric who has called for the U.S. to pull out its troops; and two smaller parties, the Islamic Dawa Party and Al Fadila al Islamiya. Because each of the warring local parties is affiliated with Iraq’s governing Shiite alliance, local disputes often spread to the highest reaches of society, threatening national stability.

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Huge amounts of money are at stake in the fighting. The southern city of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest, controls vast oil reserves and the nation’s only seaport, making it a vital trailhead for billions of dollars of imports and exports -- much of them smuggled. The Shiite parties there compete for illicit profits, many Iraqi analysts say.

The struggles in some cases have flared into open war. In August, in the town of Diwaniya, militiamen loyal to Sadr squared off against government troops infiltrated by the Badr organization, the militia loyal to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The resulting battle left 40 dead, including a dozen troops who ran out of ammunition and were executed by Sadr’s loyalists. That same month in Karbala, Sadr’s fighters fought supporters of competing Shiite cleric Mahmoud Hassani.

Shiite political parties are also using assassinations to knock off opponents in advance of upcoming provincial elections.

“There are clashes among parties and militias at various levels, and by the time the provincial council elections come, there will be bloody conflicts in Basra,” an Iraqi intelligence official said.

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U.S. and British military officials are moving ahead with plans to withdraw troops from the south, saying the area has stabilized enough for Iraqi troops to handle. Whether that assessment is accurate is unclear. After British troops handed over a base in Maysan province, militiamen vandalized it and stripped it bare as Iraqi troops looked on. American forces plan to withdraw from Najaf by November, said Lt. Col. Michael Hilliard, the commander of Forward Operating Base Duke near Najaf.

These withdrawals are designed to turn security over to the Iraqi government but seem likely to further empower the militias.

“We have no authority in our cities because the clerics and religious powers are controlling the area,” Gov. Aqeel Kharzali of Najaf province said Sept. 18 at a conference of Iraqi police and southern politicians.

“This is evident when a policeman tries to confront a militia without a fatwa. Our police in Diwaniya and Karbala are marginalized, and we have no authority to fire renegade officers aligned with the militias.”

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Kurdish-Arab Clashes

The same day Kharzali spoke, gunmen driving a BMW attacked guards at an oil pipeline near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. In Mosul, four police officers were ambushed and shot to death.

The main players and political stakes in Kirkuk and Mosul are similar: Both cities have mixed Kurdish and Arab populations battling for local control.

During ousted President Saddam Hussein’s rule, the government pursued a policy of ‘Arabization’ in the north. More than 100,000 Kurds were exiled from the Kirkuk area alone.

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Iraq’s constitution calls for a census that will define the voting districts for a referendum on Kirkuk’s fate -- whether it will be annexed to Kurdistan or to Arab-dominated Tamim province. In Kirkuk and Mosul, Kurdish politicians have been accused of trying to gerrymander yet-to-be-scheduled provincial votes. Arabs and Kurds accuse each other of politically motivated killings.

Kirkuk is the biggest prize because the city and its environs contain about 40% of Iraq’s oil reserves.

About 40% of the area’s residents are Kurds, including many who have returned since the 2003 invasion. Approximately one-third of Kirkuk’s residents are Arabs, many of whom arrived in the city during Hussein’s reign. Turkmens constitute about 20% of the regional population. The two smaller groups have sometimes joined forces to resist Kurdish control, but have also battled each another.

Car bomb attacks in Kirkuk have tripled in the last year, and roadside bombings have doubled, according to U.S. military officials who provided trend lines but not actual numbers of such assaults.

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Assassinations have also increased, with attackers focusing on politicians and police. Explosions in August targeted a courthouse and Kurdish political offices affiliated with President Jalal Talabani’s party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Mosul has none of Kirkuk’s oil wealth, but it remains a trouble spot because of its Sunni extremist element. In the wake of the U.S. siege of Fallouja in 2004, fleeing rebels made Mosul their haven. When American troops retook Mosul, insurgent forces fled to Tall Afar. U.S. troops retook the latter city in September 2005 in a large-scale assault, but rebels remain deeply rooted in all three cities.

Until March of this year, most attacks in the Mosul area targeted U.S.-led forces, but by April, there were almost as many assaults against Iraqi security forces as against the Americans. There was also an increase in attacks against civilians, according to the U.S. military.

Despite the violence, the number of U.S.-led troops in Iraq’s six northern provinces has been reduced from 31,000 to 21,000.

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Alla Eid, a 26-year-old student at Mosul University, said the city has been taken hostage by clashing insurgents and U.S. forces. “We are living like cavemen. We eat and go to work or school every morning, and then life ends before sunset,” she said. After dark, Mosul “turns into a city of ghosts.”

solomon.moore@latimes.com

louise.roug@latimes.com

Times special correspondents Ali Windawi in Kirkuk and Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and correspondents in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, Fallouja, Diwaniya and Baqubah and in Kuwait contributed to this report.

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