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Carefully Planned Attacks Target U.S. Troops in Iraq, Military Says

June 11, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- The would-be assassin lay in wait outside the fence of the military compound, biding his time in the early morning darkness Sunday until the right moment came.

The day was already hot as the soldier headed toward an open-air restroom. The gun barrel poked through a gap in the fence and a round slammed into the American's chest. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have been wearing his bulletproof vest inside a compound, but troops are getting regularly attacked in Iraq, so the U.S. military is at a heightened state of alert.

The bullet hit his vest. The soldier, whose identity was not available, pulled out his pistol and fired four rounds as he fell backward.

The gunman escaped, and the soldier survived. But the premeditated assault in the Baghdad ghetto now known as Sadr City has added to the certainty that U.S. forces in Iraq are being targeted in carefully planned attacks.

U.S. military officials have said they believe the assaults are being staged by "remnants of the regime" seeking to destabilize postwar Iraq. Now officers on the streets say there is evidence that people are being paid to kill Americans.

"There is somebody out there trying to kill soldiers," said Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, commander of the 2nd Squadron of the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which covers the sprawling Sadr City. "These are deliberate attacks."

In at least two recent cases, soldiers were shot in the neck, not by happenstance, but by training and design, U.S. authorities say. Soldiers' upper bodies are well protected with their vests and helmets; their most vulnerable point is their neck.

The attacks are becoming almost routine as the number of dead and injured Americans inches up day after day. On Tuesday, a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team was killed and another injured in an attack on a site where they were collecting weapons from Iraqi citizens, according to the U.S. Central Command. The attackers fired two rocket-propelled grenades and escaped down an alley.

The incident left a 15-day toll of eight U.S. troop deaths in hostile action and at least 25 injured, according to the military.

Since the war in Iraq began, 209 members of the U.S.-British forces have died, 139 killed by hostile fire, and 627 others wounded or otherwise injured, according to the Central Command. Among the Americans, hostile fire has accounted for the deaths of 56 Marines, 59 soldiers and one sailor.

When discussing the recent attacks, U.S. military spokespersons usually blame them on remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime.

"I don't know that anybody's been ruled out per se, but we certainly know that it has been organized locally because of the weaponry, because of the tactics that are involved," U.S. military spokesman Col. Rick Thomas said.

"And again I don't know that we've ruled any out, but we certainly believe some of it is from the former Baath regime and perhaps even paramilitary."

He acknowledged that some people might be motivated by other factors, such as criminal activity or hostility to the U.S. troops for cultural or religious reasons. At least two recent incidents, he noted, involved fire coming from mosques.

The numbers may be increasing, but the premeditated attacks are not new.

On May 14, a group of soldiers with Armstrong's squadron was set up at an observation post in the Shaab section of Baghdad. Three assailants attacked, firing AK-47s and throwing grenades. No one was hurt in the incident, and the assailants got away. About an hour later, three men on a motorcycle approached the observation post and opened fire.

Apparently they did not see the gun trucks positioned just behind the post, and all three were quickly killed. When the soldiers recovered their bodies, they found three interesting clues.

Between them, the men were carrying $4,000 in cash -- suggesting that they had been paid to carry out the hit. They had tattoos identifying them as members of Fedayeen Saddam, the fanatical militia that fought against the U.S.-led invasion. They were also drunk and carrying prescription-type drugs.

"We don't know if they are old army guys motivated because we slaughtered thousands and thousands of them," said a high-ranking American officer who asked not to be identified.

"It could be Baathists. It could be soldiers [angry about the occupation authorities' decision to dissolve the Iraqi military]. It could be terrorists. We don't know."

The greatest concentration of attacks has taken place in central Iraq, in Sunni Muslim strongholds that once benefited from Hussein's rule. U.S. troops have been ambushed in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, and in other cities such as Fallouja, Samarra and Baqubah.

"Obviously, if someone is lying in wait, it is a pre-planned attack," said Col. Jack Hammond of the 211th Military Police Battalion in Fallouja.

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