On road to peace: violence

Fighters: Yesterday's attacks showed a strong willingness by young Iraqis to confront U.S. forces.

April 07, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In one of the bloodiest days since President Bush declared major combat at an end May 1, U.S. occupation forces came face to face yesterday with the anger and fear seething in the Iraqi populace - anger at the occupation and at other Iraqis, and fear of what the future holds.

Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, labeled the adversaries variously as "terrorists," remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and outlaws, and continued to deny that the deadly fighting this week reflected growing opposition to the United States and its plans for Iraq.

"We've got tough work there because, you see, there are terrorists there who would rather kill innocent people than allow for the advance of freedom," Bush said in Arkansas.

But yesterday's fighting also showed a fierce and determined willingness to confront Americans and other coalition forces on the part of heavily outgunned young Iraqi men - from both the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority - acting out of anger, frustration, fear, a quest for power or some combination of all four.

For the first time since Hussein's regime collapsed, U.S. forces are mounting powerful military operations against both Sunnis and Shiites, all in pursuit of a single aim: pacifying the country in time for a peaceful transfer of power.

Although the Pentagon says more than 100,000 U.S. troops could remain in Iraq well into 2007, the United States wants to achieve a sufficient level of stability in Iraq by June 30 - the deadline set for officially ending the U.S.-led occupation - so that Iraqis can assume political power in their country and complete the difficult and complex transition from dictatorship to representative government.

But some analysts fear the goal is unachievable. "There is no graceful exit," said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, who called the rising series of attacks and counterattacks "a running war."

The battles yesterday in Ramadi and Fallujah brought out the Sunni fighters who stand to lose the most in the new Iraq envisioned by the Bush administration, an Iraq where power comes from the ballot box, not the gun. They have reason to fear loss of the patronage and favor they enjoyed under Hussein, who encouraged Iraq's ethnic divisions in order to maintain his own grip on the country. In an explosion of anti-American hatred last week, militants in Fallujah ambushed four American security contractors and hung charred corpses from a bridge.

Also yesterday, across southern Iraq, U.S. forces, along with other members of the coalition, confronted the armed followers of Mugtada al-Sadr, a 30- year-old Shiite firebrand with a distinguished family name who is accused of involvement in the assassination last year of a moderate, widely respected Shiite rival, Abdul Majid al-Khoei.

U.S. officials declared al-Sadr an "outlaw" Monday and launched an effort to arrest him and subdue his followers. Yesterday, battles in the mostly Shiite southern cities of Nasiriyah, Kut, Karbala and Amarah and in a northern Baghdad slum neighborhood killed 30 Iraqis, coalition military officials said.

Capture of al-Sadr would remove a source of violent disruption who could intimidate more moderate Shiite political leaders and whose following among young dispossessed Iraqis from the slums of Baghdad and elsewhere could otherwise grow, analysts said.

"He's basically tried to take over the country," Bremer said yesterday.

Analysts said he does not enjoy wide support among the millions of secular and religious Shiites who stand to gain the political strength they were long denied under Hussein. They represent 60 percent of Iraq's population.

"The rest of the Shiites do see him as a renegade, a hot-headed, young, almost illiterate man," said Adeed Dawisha, an Iraq-born political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.

Even if al-Sadr eludes capture, Dawisha said, this week's military action against him may persuade him to halt his incitement. "Generally, a policy of confrontation and resolve works with this guy," Dawisha said. "If there's weakness, he's going to exploit it."

But the size of al-Sadr's youthful following is in some ways a measure of America's inability so far to generate jobs and a better life for impoverished Iraqis. Immediately after the invasion last year, it was employees of a charitable group created by al-Sadr - not U.S. troops - who moved into Saddam City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad now called Sadr City, to open clinics and clear away garbage.

Trying to capture al-Sadr and block his bid for power runs the risk of making a martyr out of him and causing civilian casualties, analysts said.

"If there's a sure-fire way of grabbing this guy under a warrant, they ought to do it," said David Mack, a former U.S. envoy in Iraq. "But if they have to go in and deal out massive destruction to get [al-Sadr], they ought to think twice about it."

Charles Heyman, a British defense analyst, said that if the insurgency generated by al-Sadr grows into a general Shiite uprising, "the coalition will not be able to cope with the number of troops it has on the ground."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College and author of The Iraq War, about last year's American invasion, said his friends in U.S. Central Command tell him they are more worried by the potential for a Shiite revolt than they are about the volatile Sunni city of Fallujah.

Former CIA case officer Baer, looking back two decades to an ethnic and religious civil war elsewhere in the Middle East, said, "This is Lebanon, reprised a hundred times."

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