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A 'Model City' Is Caught in Cross Hairs of Violence

Iraqi police in Mosul are feeling increasingly vulnerable amid the recent spate of attacks.

March 18, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — The police officers piled out of their van, machine guns at the ready, as they scanned the busy street for any sign of the assassins who had killed three of their own less than an hour before.

As they nervously scrutinized the passing cars being waved through the intersection, the officers had the look of men caught in the cross hairs. Many of them wore kaffiyehs draped to fully cover their faces except for a slit around the eyes. They concealed their identities to avoid being targeted by insurgents who are making killings almost daily occurrences in this northern Iraqi city of 1.7 million people, with police particularly vulnerable.

Mosul was initially considered a model city of the U.S.-led occupation, with a functioning government, police force and economy. Even now, its traffic signals work, in contrast to the chaos that is Baghdad, the capital city.

Over time, the city, a former stronghold of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime, became a bloody battleground between Hussein loyalists and the U.S. military. It was here that Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusai, were killed in a July shootout with U.S. troops. And in November, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters crashed in a residential neighborhood while apparently under insurgent fire, killing 17.

In recent weeks, the violence has expanded, but it has mainly targeted Iraqis.

The most recent example was the shooting Tuesday of three Iraqi policemen riding in a squad car on the eastern side of Mosul, an event witnessed by college student Abed Ruzak from a nearby taxi.

"The three policemen were riding in a car when I heard shots being fired from all different directions, like snipers firing," Ruzak said.

Some "people are talking about" American involvement in the police shootings, he added, citing rumors that a black BMW participated before racing toward a nearby U.S. base.

In recent days, both Iraqis and foreigners have been targeted.

Five American missionaries were attacked Monday as they were driving out of the city, with four killed and the fifth seriously wounded.

On the day the police officers were shot, an interpreter who had been working with the U.S. military was killed as she drove to work.

And this week, a member of the city's governing council was slain, adding to fears that political participation can mark one for death.

Hunan Qadou, another council member and a professor of economics at Mosul University, lays the blame for the spate of violence on Baath Party loyalists and others who have their own agendas in the city.

"I was expecting Mosul would not escape terrorism," he said. "You have to remember that Mosul used to be a stronghold of the Saddam regime."

The 200-mile trip from Baghdad north to Mosul is through dangerous Baathist-dominated country, where virtually every village and town along the way is occupied by Sunni Muslims who have been deprived of the many perks and payouts that existed during the Hussein regime. Mosul, Qadou said, was a long dormant tinderbox, a large city that is home to a number of former Baathist political and military leaders.

"The appearance was so quiet," he said. "But if you mixed with people you'd realize there was danger here."

Since becoming a member of the governing council, Qadou said, he has had five bodyguards assigned to him and he routinely receives death threats.

Some of the killings have seemed so well planned that there could well be a large number of accomplices within the community.

Clearly, among the Baathist sympathizers, there is a yearning for the old days when they were in charge and order was maintained with an iron grip.

One of them is Abu Bakir, the 43-year-old owner of the Jamead juice shop in one of the busy shopping areas of Mosul.

He said Hussein's security forces and army should never have been disbanded. In his opinion, their dismissal was a major mistake that happened in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.

"I'm completely blaming the Americans for the chaos," he said. "I used to go shopping daily for supplies for my shop, but now I'm afraid I will be killed, either by some fundamental Islamic group or someone who wants my money."

Down the street, gift store owner Ahmed Mohammed was sitting in the back of his tiny shop as a small procession of women made its way to his cosmetics display.

"Criminals play an important role in all of this," he said. "But who allowed them to act this way? Who allowed the canceling of the army and allowed the chaos to be here? For sure, the Americans are behind all these things."

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