U.S. sending message to Iraqi rebels

But amid U.S. offensive, Baghdad residents wonder what it is


BAGHDAD, Iraq - After the start of an offensive against Iraqi insurgents, U.S. commanders said yesterday that they were intent on sending the rebels "a message."

But here at the site of one of the operation's primary targets, Iraqis said they were uncertain what that message was supposed to be.

On the southern edge of the capital, a large building that U.S. commanders said was a "meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point" for the insurgents still stood, despite the military's report that it had been destroyed in an airstrike the night before.

U.S. soldiers came to the neighborhood several hours before the attack, residents said, warning of the strike and making sure that everyone in the area was evacuated. Then an AC-130 gunship strafed the building, knocking holes in the walls and wrecking much of the textile machinery inside.

After the strike, the Americans came back, but detained no suspects and found no weapons.

The owner, Waad Dakhil Bolane, who said the Americans had warned his guards of the impending air raid, shook his head in befuddlement.

"Does this look like a military base to you?" he asked, standing inside his factory, which was still filled with textile machinery. "The Americans came here, told the guards to leave and then attacked. I don't understand."

American commanders, who have been threatening for days to crack down on Iraqi insurgents, said later that they were certain that the building had been used to fire mortars at U.S. soldiers.

One resident seemed to confirm that. Told by a visitor that he intended to go to the factory, the Iraqi, Dervish Muhammad, waved his hand in warning. "Look out," he said. "There are bad people in there."

But the commanders conceded that their primary aim had been to impress the guerrillas as much as to kill them.

"We were sending a message," an allied official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The message is, `We're coming.'"

In recent weeks, military commanders have seemed to be judiciously choosing targets that provide relatively benign opportunities to remind Iraqis of the firepower they have at their disposal.

Last week, after the downing of U.S. helicopters in Fallujah and Tikrit, American F-16 jet fighters bombed rudimentary buildings suspected of harboring insurgents and war materiel. Such planes had been used rarely, if at all, since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

Similarly, the AC-130 gunship, which was used Wednesday night, seemed to bring far more firepower than was needed to shoot up the textile factory. Even after the attack, the building still stood - readily available, it seemed, to harbor the enemy meetings and planning sessions that were suspected before.

For all the technologically advanced weaponry employed in recent days, it is not clear what effect it has had on tamping down the Iraqi insurgency. Wednesday, the day the U.S. offensive began, turned out to be one of the most intense yet for American soldiers, who were attacked 46 times by Iraqi guerrillas.

Over the past seven days, an American military official said yesterday, the average number of attacks per day against American forces rose to 37, a step up from previous weeks.

U.S. officials said they had killed or captured a number of Iraqi insurgents during the offensive and had foiled attacks. In the coming days, they said, the offensive would kick into a higher gear.

By late yesterday, the sound of gun and artillery fire, evidently of U.S. origin, began echoing through Baghdad streets.

American commanders said late yesterday evening that they had attacked one building and two suspected enemy mortar sites.

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