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Iraqi Attacks Imperil U.S. Rule

A fatal ambush occurs hours after more forces arrive in Fallouja, a hot spot. Nationally, assaults on American troops tripled last month.

June 06, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — In another sign of rising armed resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, one American soldier was killed and five others wounded early Thursday in an ambush just hours after the U.S. Army sent reinforcements here.

Though occupation authorities say they do not believe attacks are being organized on a national level, they acknowledge that strikes against U.S.-led forces have almost tripled -- from 30 in April to 85 in May -- and are planned, in most cases, they say, by remnants of Saddam Hussein's government.

This tense and increasingly volatile situation in central Iraq -- with Fallouja as the primary hot spot -- reflects a troublesome trend that threatens to undermine the U.S. occupation: Each time there is an attack on troops, the military steps up the kind of activities that many Iraqis say inspire them to resist. And each time the Iraqis resist, U.S. forces step up their enforcement efforts.

The situation is made all the more combustible by the 105- degree June heat and the realization on both sides that U.S. troops aren't leaving any time soon. It is evident in hot spots like Fallouja, but also in Baghdad, where many U.S. soldiers are tense and fearful that they are open targets.

"I have been here for two months. I am sick of this. I have no sympathy for these people," shouted a U.S. Army corporal working in Baghdad on Wednesday as she tried to organize a line of about 50 civilians visiting the command operations center to ask for help with jobs, visas and other personal matters.

As U.S. forces poured into the conservative, tradition-bound community of Fallouja this week with tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and 1,500 additional troops -- all in response to previous attacks on soldiers -- locals promised to step up their armed resistance.

"A call to Muslims," read a neatly printed sign posted on a market window not far from the early morning ambush. "Please don't cooperate with the nonbeliever coalition troops or help them in any way."

The sign also had a warning for those who might consider cooperating: "This behavior will expose you to danger. Especially in front of police stations." The attack Thursday occurred near a police station, Fallouja residents said.

It was after midnight as a group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were finishing a patrol. They climbed into a vehicle to leave when a rocket- propelled grenade, or RPG, was fired at them, said Col. Jack Hammond, whose military police unit conducted the follow-up mission.

The wounded soldiers were evacuated to a nearby military hospital. The identities of the victims weren't released.

A few hours later, members of Hammond's military police unit surrounded the neighborhood where they believed the RPG fire had originated. Humvees and heavily armed soldiers blocked the streets. Teams of between 25 and 30 MPs conducted house-to-house searches for weapons and suspects.

Hammond, who emphasized his desire to be sensitive to local customs and traditions, was forced to confront a near impossible situation. The unit brought along female soldiers so that men would not search the Muslim women, and its members offered apologies to every resident after searching their homes. They also gave out candy to children in the houses and tried to conduct themselves more like police than soldiers.

"You don't need to make people angry who are already angry," said Hammond, who belongs to a military police battalion out of Rhode Island.

Nonetheless, these were still soldiers, in full combat gear, riding military vehicles, charging through residential neighborhoods and bursting into civilian homes. They forced the men to lie down on the floor in front of their families, which is considered especially humiliating here. The Americans also did not have translators to explain what they were after.

"The way they are searching is not acceptable," Tarik Kamal, 35, a shopkeeper, shouted after the military police withdrew from his neighborhood. "They are provoking us to revenge, to retaliate. We will increase our resistance."

Fallouja is a Sunni Muslim stronghold in a country that is predominantly Shiite Muslim. During the reign of Hussein -- a Sunni -- residents here enjoyed a sense of privilege and security. It is a community where religion and tribal culture dictate how residents carry themselves and live. Families reside in houses behind compound walls that give privacy and shield women from the view of outsiders.

Unlike other towns, Fallouja did not descend into chaos and looting after the fall of Hussein; its elders appointed a local council that managed to maintain order and provide some services. The situation deteriorated when U.S. forces arrived in late April. They set up a camp in a local school, alienating the residents who wanted their children to resume classes.

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