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U.S. Military Responding More Fiercely to Iraqi Guerrilla Strikes

November 12, 2003|John Daniszewski and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

MAMUDIYAH, Iraq — U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police arrived at the sprawling three-family farmhouse just after 4 p.m. with orders for the 15 or so people still living there: Grab what you can in the next 30 minutes, and then leave. Your house is about to be bombed.

Two hours later on Monday, a pair of F-16 warplanes screamed overhead and dropped 1,000-pound laser-guided armaments on the boxy, concrete structure. The bombs left a deep crater strewn with smashed furniture, broken concrete and other debris. The lawn, shed and date trees around it remained intact.

U.S. military authorities said the bombing of the Najim family house was a prime example of a firm new response to those who plant roadside bombs, hide weapons or carry out ambushes that kill or harm American soldiers, and they want the people in these parts to know about it. It was the third fixed-wing bombing in a week across Iraq, pointing up a re-escalation of the war by the U.S. in response to heightened insurgency.

"The message is this: If you shoot at an American or a coalition force member, you are going to be killed or you are going to be captured, and if we trace somebody back to a specific safe house, we are going to destroy that facility," said Maj. Lou Zeisman, a paratroop officer of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division deployed here from Fayetteville, N.C. "We are not going to take these continuous attacks."

For some members of Zeisman's 3-505 task force based in this town half an hour south of Baghdad, the bombing was a particularly satisfying act of strategic retribution and deterrence. That is because, they said, they had first managed to obtain confessions and physical evidence implicating male residents of the house in a recent night ambush by eight Iraqi insurgents that took the life of one of their best-loved sergeants.

The ambush and the U.S. military's crushing response offer a detailed glimpse into the give-and-take of battle now occurring in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle" west and north of Baghdad, parts of which seem to be sliding inexorably back toward all-out war.

Bands of Iraqi fighters, often affiliated with the former Iraqi army and bearing more sophisticated equipment, are acting with increased audacity and frequency against U.S.-led coalition forces. In response, the U.S. is using escalating force, including some of the most concentrated fixed-wing bombing attacks since President Bush declared the major combat phase of the war over May 1.

U.S. forces are sometimes able to turn the tables on their assailants and use human intelligence and overwhelming military force to defeat them, as the military said was the case with the house bombed Monday.

The evidence against the members of the Najim household included homemade bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, and night-vision goggles found before the strike in and around the premises, some even hidden in the false bed of a pickup truck, said Zeisman, speaking the day after the bombing that destroyed the house situated along a major supply route used by coalition forces.

'We Lost a Good Soldier'

Referring to Sgt. 1st Class Jose A. Rivera, 34, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, who was killed in a firefight last Wednesday by attackers believed to have carried out their ambush from the house, Zeisman said, "We lost a soldier that evening, a very good soldier, who was loved by a lot of people."

But he insisted it wasn't entirely revenge. "We didn't destroy a house just because we were angry that someone was killed," he said. "We did it because the people there were linked to the attack and we are not going to tolerate it anymore."

For people who harbor attackers or allow their houses to be used for planning attacks, he said, "we are going to destroy their property -- period."

The sentiment was echoed by Col. Jefforey Smith, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, in Fallouja, which also has responsibility for the Mamudiyah area.

"There is no sanctuary," Smith said. "This is serious business here. The enemy needs to know we're not playing around."

It is a message that was pushed on leaders of towns in western and central Iraq who met last weekend with Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command. The general's unmistakable demand: Get with the program, or lose out on the benefits of the new Iraq.

In the Arab world, the tactic is likely to be compared to that used by Israel, which frequently bulldozes the family homes of Palestinian suicide bombers and other buildings from which Palestinian attacks are believed to emanate.

The Najim house is southeast of Mamudiyah, on the southern fringe of the Sunni Triangle, which has been the center of armed resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. Smith said the area had been calm for months but that the last few weeks had seen a surge in guerrilla actions. In addition, he had noticed a lot of mistrust of U.S. forces, to the extent that Mamudiyah police a month ago refused to go on joint patrols with the Army.

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