`This is not war. It is terrorism.'

Stunned U.S. commander denounces Iraqi bombing

War In Iraq

March 30, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WITH THE 3RD INFANTRY DIVISION, in central Iraq - The explosion of a bomb in a taxi that killed four Army soldiers yesterday at a checkpoint north of the city of Najaf stunned and angered commanders, who saw the division's war dead triple in a single bomb's blast.

"I don't know what motivated this guy to kill himself," said Capt. Andrew J. Valles, the 1st Brigade's civil and military affairs officer. "To me, this is not an act of war. It is terrorism: a man in a civilian vehicle killing himself at a checkpoint."

Until yesterday, the division had lost two soldiers, one killed by a sniper and one when a Bradley armored fighting vehicle plunged into a water-filled ditch.

The attack - which also killed the taxi's lone occupant - will almost certainly result in a tightening of security around units spread across hundreds of square miles of Iraq, something a commander here said would only intensify the suffering of innocent civilians.

The soldiers, who were not immediately identified, pending notification of their relatives, were part of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. Those troops have advanced deep into Iraq, reaching this flat scrub desert north of Najaf a week ago, but have remained here as fighting continued on their flanks and at their rear.

Valles, voicing a sentiment common among soldiers here, expressed frustration not only at the tactics of Iraqi fighters but at the slowdown in the military advance toward Baghdad. "This is what happens when we just sit here," he said.

Within minutes of the bombing, three other taxis tried to cross another Army checkpoint on the road into Najaf but were destroyed by Bradley armored vehicles, killing an unknown number of Iraqis.

Col. William F. Grimsley, the commander of the 1st Brigade, said it did not appear that those taxis were packed with explosives, but he speculated that they might have been part of a coordinated strike at the edges of the division's defenses. "It certainly happened near simultaneously," he said.

Officers here said soldiers had captured vehicles filled with explosives since rolling into Iraq nine days ago, though it was unclear whether the vehicles were intended to be car bombs.

The taxi that exploded yesterday - like the three that were subsequently destroyed - was typical of those in Baghdad and other cities: a four-door sedan painted in orange and white checkerboards.

At the checkpoint, guarded by armored vehicles and infantry soldiers, the taxi stopped before a barricade with a sign in Arabic ordering vehicles to stop, according to officers' accounts. The taxi's driver beckoned to the soldiers to approach.

When four did, the taxi exploded. Grimsley said the driver, like many of the fighters encountered here in recent days, appeared to be wearing civilian clothes.

Restrictions imposed on journalists traveling with the military prohibit discussing some details of military operations, including in this case the exact location of the bombing.

Although Army forces occupy vast swaths of desert along the Euphrates, they have not cut off all civilian traffic, trying to preserve what Grimsley called a delicate balance between security and "letting the local people get on with their lives."

After yesterday's attack, that appears certain to change. "We'll have to be a little stricter on how we keep things away from us," the colonel said. "Quite frankly, it hurts the civilian population."

Maj. John M. Altman, the brigade's intelligence analyst, said American forces had expected to encounter suicide bombers, but only when they moved into Baghdad and other cities.

Altman acknowledged, as have senior commanders in Iraq and Washington, that American forces underestimated the determination of some Iraqis to resist. He attributed that determination to the fact that many more Iraqis might have a stake in Saddam Hussein's rule than previously thought.

"Regime existence equals their existence," he said in an interview moments before news of the suicide attack reached the brigade's headquarters camp. "They're defending, really, their own way of life."

After advancing rapidly in the first three days of the war, the 3rd Infantry Division has ground to a halt, not only because of the fighting around Najaf, but also because skirmishes at the rear have forced delays in delivering ammunition, fuel and other supplies.

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