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Strikes at 'Collaborators' Sow Fear but Not Flight

Campaign to intimidate Iraqis working for the occupation is blunted by economic need.

February 12, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The bombings outside an Iraqi army recruitment center and a police station this week were among the deadliest attacks on Iraqi civilians since Saddam Hussein's government fell in April.

But in the last few weeks, insurgents have also shot translators for the U.S.-led occupation and opened fire on laundresses at a U.S. military base as they were commuting to work.

The insurgents appear to be increasingly targeting Iraqis perceived to be collaborators -- people seen as supporting or advancing American interests, including the U.S.-backed plan for a new Iraqi government. The killings appear aimed at discouraging Iraqis from helping to create a new political order.

However, the results thus far are mixed.

In some cases, those who survive quit their jobs en masse, as the surviving laundresses did. Yet, in a surprising number of instances, Iraqis have persevered undeterred.

The insurgents are up against a force every bit as strong as fear: the need of Iraqis to work to feed their families. The result is that although many men do not tell their mothers, fathers and wives that they have taken jobs that support the U.S.-led occupation, most of them do not leave those jobs even when they are directly threatened.

"What we are seeing is that all of these people who are being killed are viewed as collaborators," said Robin Bhatty, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan, who recently visited Iraq. "But these atrocities and attacks don't seem to be having the desired effect on people. People are still applying for these jobs. What we don't know is if the economy were better, whether people would still take these positions."

He added that it was also hard to measure whether the bombings would discourage police from acting forcefully.

Salim Abbas Abid, 31, who has worked for three years as a police lieutenant, said his family's economic circumstances meant that he only briefly considered quitting his job after a November suicide bombing in his bedraggled hometown of Khan Bani Saad. The blast in the village near Baqubah, north of Baghdad, demolished a large chunk of his police station, killing six of his colleagues.

"I thought about quitting for a couple of days, and my mother and father begged me to -- they still ask me every day. But my brother and I are the only ones working in my family," Abid said. "Because of the hardships of living, I kept working -- those police who were not injured, they all kept coming to work."

He and others are quick to say they are not courageous so much as impoverished and fed up with living on the edge. After desolate decades under Hussein, they say, they are resigned to the idea that they cannot avoid suffering and loss.

It is a sentiment hard for Westerners to comprehend -- especially in the face of a string of suicide bombings that in a 24-hour period this week took the lives of more than 100 Iraqis in Iskandariya and Baghdad.

On Wednesday night, two American soldiers from the 1st Armored Division were killed by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad, the military said. Their deaths bring the American toll in Iraq to at least 537.

In the weeks and months after the U.S.-led invasion began in late March, insurgents picked off Iraqi police, mayors, an Iraqi Governing Council member and oil and electrical workers. But the number and brutality of the attacks seem to be accelerating. Since the beginning of February, more than 200 civilians have been killed.

Officials in the U.S.-led coalition implied at a news conference here Wednesday that the two most recent suicide bombings were the work of foreign terrorists linked to the Al Qaeda network. They spoke several times about a widely publicized letter believed to have been written by Abu Musab Zarqawi -- a Jordanian suspected of links to foreign terrorist organizations -- to his superiors, describing the effort to disrupt Iraq's move toward sovereignty.

"We have predicted that, as we come closer and closer to governance and as we come closer and closer to handing over sovereignty of this country to the Iraqi people, there would be a spike in violence," said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a U.S. military spokesman.

"We have been planning for it, we're prepared for it, and the coalition activities up to this point have demonstrated the number of attacks that we've prevented from happening. It has demonstrated that we're fully capable of maintaining a safe and secure environment in the main -- within the country of Iraq," he said. He added, however, that he expected commanders on the ground to reevaluate whether the protections were sufficient.

Despite the assertions of vigilance, another coalition official acknowledged that it was not possible to protect against all attacks. "They won't break through every single time, but they will break through from time to time," said Dan Senor, senior spokesman for L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq.

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