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Enemy More Audacious but Still Anonymous

Views differ on whether Baghdad assaults are the work of Al Qaeda, Baathists or foreigners.

October 28, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Some Al Qaeda hallmarks were there: Simultaneous attacks on multiple targets. Hundreds dead or wounded. All timed for maximum psychological impact on an inflamed Arab world and a fretting American audience.

But U.S. military officials and counter-terrorism experts said Monday's car bombings in Iraq could have been the work of various hostile elements seeking to undermine the U.S.-led occupation and maybe even a collaboration among several groups. Several analysts said it was unlikely that Al Qaeda was to blame.

Nearly six months after President Bush declared major combat over in Iraq, the uncertainty about who the enemy groups are, what they are capable of and whether any are working together underscores the security nightmare confronting U.S. forces, foreign aid workers and Iraqis.

Bush sought to give a silver lining to the bloodiest day of the postwar period in Baghdad, telling reporters at the White House that the attacks reflect the enemy's desperation and growing frustration with American success.

"The more progress we make on the ground, the more free the Iraqis become, the more electricity that's available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become," Bush said.

Counter-terrorism officials and experts said it's conceivable that the latest violence is a "desperate spasm" from a fading foe, but it's also possible that the attacks point to rising sophistication and recognition of Americans' intelligence and security vulnerabilities.

"The 'growing desperation' argument is a plausible argument," said Bathsheba Crocker, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who took part in a Pentagon-supported survey of postwar problems in Iraq several months ago. "But this looks almost more like [the enemy] has taken some time off and regrouped and come back in more organized fashion than before."

In Monday's strikes, four explosives-laden vehicles driven by suicide attackers detonated within 25 minutes of one another in four Baghdad neighborhoods. The targets were the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and three police stations.

At least 35 people, including a U.S. soldier, were killed and 224 were injured. A fifth car bomber, apparently a Syrian, was captured after his explosives failed to detonate when he drove into another police station.

The attacks occurred the day after rockets ripped into the Rashid Hotel, where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was staying. An American military officer was killed and dozens of people were injured in that attack.

The attacks, which coincided with the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, set back the U.S. cause at a moment when encouraging signs were increasing. In recent days, authorities had lifted a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew in Baghdad and reopened a major bridge to jubilant crowds. Some people had begun to believe that the worst of the violence -- including the deadly bombings of the United Nations headquarters, the Jordanian Embassy and a shrine in the city of Najaf in August -- had passed.

Military officials Monday cited other signs of progress. Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, speaking from Tikrit via satellite to reporters at the Pentagon, said that over the last five weeks U.S. forces have captured dozens of former regime members, enormous caches of weapons and $1.5 million believed to be earmarked for financing hostilities against coalition forces.

He also cited intelligence suggesting that the going rate for attacks was taking an inflationary turn. When the division arrived in Iraq, he said, enemy financiers were paying $100 to those willing to carry out attacks against coalition troops and $500 for "successful" operations.

"We now believe it's somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 if you conduct an attack," Odierno said, "and $3,000 to $5,000 if you're successful."

He attributed the higher rates to growing support for the American presence and increasing unwillingness by insurgents to risk taking part in an operation. "It's becoming so expensive that they can't afford to pay as many now," he said, "so they've had to change their techniques."

Odierno said attackers are increasingly focusing on so-called soft targets, those that are less heavily guarded and typically house civilians or workers who are not part of the U.S. military or security apparatus. Although the assault on the Red Cross offices fit that pattern, the attack on the fortified Rashid Hotel did not.

To some experts, the Rashid strike demonstrated the enemy's high level of training and expertise. When the United States disbanded the Iraqi military, it set loose an army of disaffected men with lethal skills. And many foreigners crossing into the country are believed to have been trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have blamed both groups for attacks on American forces.

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