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U.S. Optimism Is Tested Again After Ambush Kills 4 in Iraq


Published: April 1, 2004

AGHDAD, Iraq, March 31 — Hours after the deaths of the four American civilians who were dragged from their vehicle and mutilated in Falluja on Wednesday, an American general went before reporters in Baghdad with the air of measured assurance that has characterized every daily briefing on the military situation across Iraq.

"Despite an uptick in local engagements, the overall area of operations remains relatively stable with negligible impact on the coalition's ability to continue progress in governance, economic development, and restoration of essential services," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, 51, the former paratrooper who is chief spokesman for the United States military command.

Nearly a year into the insurgency, the command, in lock step with the civilian administration headed by L. Paul Bremer III, remains relentlessly positive.

But along with the publicly expressed confidence, there are hints that American generals are not as sure as they were only weeks ago that they have turned a corner in the conflict. Nor do the scenes from Falluja on Wednesday — Iraqis mutilating American bodies, and crowds cheering at the sight — appear to fit the theory put forward by the American military that Islamic militants, including foreigners, rather than Iraqi supporters of Saddam Hussein, are increasingly behind terrorist attacks. Falluja, 30 miles west of Baghdad, has been the volatile center of support for the toppled dictator, and a bellwether of the wider war.

Falluja, relatively quiet in recent months, has become a major battleground again as the First Marine Expeditionary Force, replacing the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, has sent large troop formations into the city to challenge insurgents who had taken control of entire neighborhoods. This reversed the airborne division's policy of leaving security in the city mainly to Iraqi police and civil defense units, and led last week to several pitched battles in which at least three marines and 30 Iraqis died.

The visceral hatred for Americans that poured forth on Wednesday suggests that the city remains as much a caldron as it was last April 9, when American troops captured Baghdad. Two weeks after Mr. Hussein's ouster, American troops who had taken over a school as a barracks opened fire on angry crowds, killing 17 Iraqis, after shots were fired at the school. The incident set off attacks that by midsummer had engulfed the entire Sunni Triangle, a strategic area of hundreds of square miles in central Iraq, north, south and west of Baghdad.

By February, American generals had begun to say that the worst of the "Saddamist" insurgency was over, its power blunted by a wide American offensive that followed the former dictator's capture on Dec. 13. The American strikes across the Sunni Triangle, they said, had relied heavily on information about the cell structure of the insurgent leadership that was found among the documents seized with Mr. Hussein. Penetrating that, the American officers said, had allowed them to disrupt attacks severely, putting the rebels at a disadvantage.

At the same time, senior officers around Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the American commander, said that Hussein loyalists were increasingly being replaced as America's principal enemy in Iraq by Islamic terrorists with at least loose links to Al Qaeda.

On Feb. 8, United States officials produced a document that became known as the "Zarqawi letter." In this, they said, a man they believed to be responsible for several major attacks, including the August bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people, had urged Qaeda leaders to support further attacks aimed at provoking a civil war in Iraq — and halting American progress toward the establishment of a Western-style democratic state.

Questions remain about the letter, including whether the writer really was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born Islamic militant. But it provided the Americans with a ready-made template for their new interpretation of the war. They said the letter, found on a computer disk carried by a Qaeda-linked courier, was proof that the conflict in Iraq had been transformed from a battle to restore Mr. Hussein into a regional theater for the worldwide war against terrorism.

Mr. Zarqawi's photograph was posted in operations centers at American bases across Iraq, and soldiers in their Humvees began cursing Mr. Zarqawi more than Mr. Hussein. Virtually every briefing for reporters tied developments in the war to the growing role of the Islamic militants and the receding threat from what military jargon calls F.R.E.'s, or former regime elements.

In urging this view, American generals and senior officials around Mr. Bremer, chief of the occupation authority, have struggled to explain elements of the situation that have seemed not quite to fit their theory. While blaming Islamic militants for many of the worst suicide bombings, including the attacks in Baghdad and Karbala in early March that killed at least 190 people, they have not been able to provide strong evidence that the Islamists, and not supporters of Mr. Hussein, were responsible.

One senior official who blamed Mr. Zarqawi for the Baghdad and Karbala bombings told reporters that the F.B.I. had matched ball bearings used in the suicide belts with those used in two January bombings in the northern city of Erbil that killed more than 100 people. But he conceded that ball bearings are sufficiently alike that they lack a conclusive forensic signature — and that a matchup of the shrapnel would prove only that the two attacks might have had a common organizer, not necessarily that the perpetrator was Mr. Zarqawi, and not even that the attackers were Islamic militants, rather than followers of Mr. Hussein.

Another problem for those who contend that Islamic terrorists with Qaeda links now pose the main threat to American forces is that only a small number of the 12,000 detainees currently held at American-run camps across Iraq are foreigners from the swath of Muslim countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa who have been the principal activists of Al Qaeda and its associated groups elsewhere. American officials have said that fewer than 150 of the detainees are foreigners, the rest Iraqis. The United States command has occasionally announced the arrest of a suspected Islamic terrorist, but has then fallen silent.

On Tuesday, before the Falluja attacks, General Kimmitt, the American military spokesman, appeared to back off at least somewhat from the emphasis on Islamic militants as the principal enemy. At a briefing, he offered an overview of the war in which he suggested that what has occurred, in effect, is a merging of the Saddamist insurgents and the Islamic terrorists into a common terrorist threat, and that, either way, "we just call them targets."

Several Iraqis interviewed on Wednesday, including middle-class professionals, merchants and former members of Mr. Hussein's army, suggested that that the United States might be facing a war in which the common bonds of Iraqi nationalism and Arab sensibility have transcended other differences, fostering a war of national resistance that could pose still greater challenges to the Americans in the months, and perhaps years, ahead.


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They're just reacting the same way we would if another country were to occupy us. If another country invaded us to oust bush, I would behave the same way these people have.

I dont like to see americans die but this is exactly why I am against the war.

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Originally posted by xpyrate

They're just reacting the same way we would if another country were to occupy us. If another country invaded us to oust bush, I would behave the same way these people have.

I dont like to see americans die but this is exactly why I am against the war.


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Originally posted by xpyrate

They're just reacting the same way we would if another country were to occupy us. If another country invaded us to oust bush, I would behave the same way these people have.

how can u compare a democracy to a dictatorship? if Bush would have: killed his own people, take away freedoms, property, etc from his people...Americans would welcome change...not fight against their liberators...ur comparing apples to oranges...the only ones putting up a fight are those that have supported Saddam and the foreign fighters coming in...we (the US) might not be liked, but many are protesting the correct way..not firing RPGs at troops are civilian contractors...:idea:

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Originally posted by daprofessional

you'd ambush innocent people and mutilate them, tear them limb from limb, burn them alive and hang their bodies on bridge?

there are no "innocent" people in a war zone. And though what was done to them was not exactly civilized, these guys were ex-military security men, armed and in extremely hostile territory. Dude, read the other articles regading this topic - this has been posted before.

War is not a pretty thing.

Also, like I've mentioned before, Americans have been dragged behind cars, burned alive, butchered, mutilated, killed, etc, etc right here at home. By Americans.

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April 2, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Even in a country wracked by three wars and 30 years of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule, the photos of a cheering mob beating the charred bodies of four American civilians and dragging them through the streets of Fallujah shocked many Iraqis.

"It was completely un-Islamic to treat the bodies in that way. The people who did this were acting like animals," said Ali Khaled, 29, an electrician who sat drinking tea with four friends at a coffee house in Baghdad's old quarter yesterday afternoon. "They committed an unforgivable sin, and they will be punished by God."

Wednesday's ambush of the four contractors - and Iraqis mutilating their bodies and hanging two of them from a bridge - in the restive city of Fallujah was the talk of Baghdad's coffee houses, kebab joints and mosques. The attack did not receive much coverage in the Iraqi press, but most Iraqis had seen footage on Arab satellite stations of a crowd cheering and dancing around the burned corpses.

As Khaled and his friends debated the fate that would befall those who desecrated the bodies, Karim Nasser sat silently puffing on a water pipe. About 10 minutes later, he broke in with an observation that silenced the group: "This was similar to what happened to Imam Hussein in Karbala," said Nasser, 31, an unemployed engineer.

It was a comment loaded with historical and religious symbolism, evoking Shia Islam's most traumatic chapter. Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of Shiism's founding figures, was killed along with a small band of followers in the year 680 in Karbala, now an Iraqi city. Hussein was beheaded and his body was mutilated.

The Sunni Muslim soldiers who cut off Hussein's head brought it back to Damascus, the seat of a rival Muslim leader. It was the defining event in the split between Sunnis and Shia, a division that still plays out today in Iraq, where the majority Shia have been ruled by a Sunni minority for more than 70 years.

That an Iraqi Shia would compare the killing of four American civilians in Fallujah - a Sunni-dominated city - is remarkable.

"Of course, Imam Hussein suffered more," Nasser added quickly.

Several Iraqi Sunnis interviewed yesterday also expressed shock at the killings, but not as strongly as Shia. Sunnis spoke of the U.S. crackdown on insurgents in and around Fallujah, where there have been more attacks against U.S. forces than anywhere else in Iraq. Fallujah, a city of 500,000 people about 30 miles west of Baghdad, was well-treated by Saddam Hussein because it is dominated by Sunnis, like his Baathist regime.

"What the people did to those bodies was not excusable in any way," said Khalil Hassan, 69, a retired teacher and a Sunni, as a puff of white smoke rose over his head. "But the Americans have also committed crimes against people in Fallujah and other Iraqi towns."

Some members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which was largely silent on the day of the attack, also made public statements yesterday.

"In 1958, July 14th, some members of the royal family were killed and mutilated. Iraqis were ashamed for decades at this barbaric event," Samir Sumaidi told reporters. "Now after this, I feel that again Iraqis will hang their heads in shame."

Iraqi newspapers largely played down the attacks. Only one major newspaper condemned them strongly. Al-Nahda, an independent daily, carried a photo of a corpse lying next to a burning SUV, under the headline: "A vicious violation of Islamic laws and civilized norms."

Al-Sabah, a newspaper funded by the U.S.-led occupation authority mentioned the attacks in a single paragraph within a story about daily violence around Iraq. It made no mention of the bodies being mutilated and had no photographs.

Since the fall of Hussein's regime, more than 150 newspapers have opened throughout Iraq. Like Al-Sabah, several of the dozen most widely circulated papers made little or no mention of the attacks.

But that didn't stop Iraqis from analyzing the attacks' impact - and voicing a mix of shame and fear at the actions of their fellow countrymen.

"I never thought that Iraqis were capable of something like this," said Mehdi Salman, 43, a clothing shop owner. "We went through so much pain and suffering under Saddam ... It made some people forget their religion and their humanity."

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