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Iraqi Leaders Would Consider Martial Law

As the death toll from two suicide attacks tops 40, an official says all ideas for ending the violence will be weighed after June 30 hand-over.

June 18, 2004|Ashraf Khalil | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — On a day when two suicide bombings killed 41 Iraqis and injured more than 130, Iraq's interior minister said Thursday that the interim government would consider all options to quell the country's bloody insurgency -- including declaring martial law.

That tactic is among those that will be discussed if the violence continues after June 30, when the interim government is scheduled to take over from the U.S.-led coalition, said Interior Minister Falah Fakib. "If we see the need to do it, we won't hesitate," he said.

The minister's comments came as Iraqis witnessed the latest in an almost daily drumbeat of attacks as the deadline for the hand-over of sovereignty approached. It was one of the deadliest days in months.

Thursday's bombings targeted the fledgling Iraqi security services, but insurgents have also focused on foreign contractors working to restore electricity and keep oil flowing. Security and reconstruction are the biggest problems facing the interim government.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi official -- An article Friday in Section A about violence in Iraq referred to interim Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Nakib as Falah Fakib.

"These attacks won't delay Iraq and its people from their progress toward prosperity and peace," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said. They are "an escalation we have been expecting" in the final weeks before the hand-over.

"We will continue to confront the enemies of Iraq.... Justice will prevail," he said.

Last week, Allawi said he and his ministers were prepared to use "drastic measures" to end the insurgency. He didn't provide specifics Thursday about how civilians and members of the nation's security forces could be protected.

Nor did Nakib give details on how martial law would be implemented in a country that has been occupied for more than 14 months, after a regime with a harsh security apparatus was deposed. It remains unclear whether Iraq has enough forces to use such a strategy.

The first attack Thursday came when a suicide car bomber struck an Iraqi army recruitment office in central Baghdad, killing 35 Iraqis and injuring 138, the Health Ministry said. Local officials questioned whether keeping potential recruits outside the compound had placed them in greater danger.

The bomber struck during the height of morning rush-hour on a packed stretch of one of Baghdad's busiest streets, and many of the casualties were commuters hurt by shrapnel and flying glass.

A second car bomb exploded later in the day in Balad, north of the capital, killing six members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a force created by the coalition to help fight the insurgency.

Both the army and the corps, along with the Iraqi police, have been labeled by insurgents as collaborators with the occupation forces. That and the relative vulnerability of the Iraqi forces compared with U.S. troops have made the Iraqis prime targets. And it raises questions about how effective they will be at maintaining order.

U.S. Army Col. Mike Murray said that the attacker drove a white Toyota Land Cruiser -- a favored vehicle in recent car bombings -- into the gravel-filled barriers bracketing the gates of the Muthanna airport in central Baghdad, which houses the recruiting center. Murray said the car apparently contained at least three large artillery shells packed with explosives.

At the time, about 9 a.m., the gates were crowded with men lining up to apply for positions in the Iraqi army, which is being rebuilt after L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, disbanded it last year.

The explosion left shattered vehicles strewn along normally packed Damascus Street, which runs alongside Baghdad's vast Zawra public gardens a short distance from coalition headquarters. Hours later, a broken white sedan lay in the middle of the street with a pool of blood on the passenger seat. A shrapnel-marked silver BMW had come to rest against the garden walls across the street from the recruiting center.

At the gates, the charred frame and engine block of the attacker's car lay against the barriers, surrounded by piles of tattered clothes, burned metal and bloody sandals.

Prospective army and police recruits gathered outside bases and police stations have proved particularly inviting targets. A different entrance to the Muthanna recruiting station was hit in an almost identical bombing in February, leaving 47 dead.

In both cases, the bombers struck the crowds waiting outside the gates. Despite the concrete barriers at such bases, the secure zone gives way to the public street, which is harder to defend.

Murray said sentries in the towers around the Muthanna gate had seen the bomber's car and considered it suspicious. They opened fire but were unable to prevent the driver from plowing into the barriers.

"This is a fairly well-protected facility," Murray said. "These kinds of attacks are really tough to stop." He said the base had let in the day's allotment of new recruits and closed the gates about an hour before the attack. The men who remained outside -- and who accounted for most of the fatalities -- were hoping to talk their way onto the recruitment lists, he said.

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