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Violence Is the Only Certainty in Iraq

April was the deadliest month for the U.S. military since the war began. And the turmoil is likely to grow before the handover of power.

May 02, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman, Patrick J. McDonnell and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — He was 17 years old and a Future Farmer of America when his mother signed the consent form for Dustin Sekula to join the Marines. They cut his hair and gave him dog tags. And the native of Hidalgo County, Texas, shipped out to a place in Iraq known as the Sunni Triangle, where he was killed in a firefight April 1.

So began the bloodiest month U.S. forces have endured since the Iraq war began -- at least 136 troops killed by suicide bombs and in ambushes, accidents and battles across the desert. More soldiers died last month than during the invasion of Iraq up to the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

One year ago Saturday, President Bush landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier and proclaimed the "major combat" phase of the war over. But Sekula's death in western Iraq -- where 52 Marines were killed in April -- suggests there is much more fighting to be done. Insurrections elsewhere are far from resolved. Insurgents have grown bolder and U.S. forces are likely to face more ambushes and suicide bombs like the two explosions that killed 10 U.S. troops on Thursday and Friday.

"It's calm for the moment, like eggs in the carton, but you have a feeling something could break and all the eggs could come rolling out and break," said Sgt. Fernando Andrade, a 27-year-old Marine from Los Angeles guarding a road Saturday near Fallouja, where an uneasy peace agreement took hold after three weeks of fighting. "You just don't know."

Iraq is unpredictable, but its violence is certain. Anger against the U.S.-led occupation is likely to rise before the Bush administration's scheduled return of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. On Saturday, Arab television portrayed the Marines' withdrawal last week from Fallouja as a victory for insurgents, a prospect that could inspire more armed resistance.

In Najaf, Iraq's holiest city, U.S. soldiers encircling a militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr are avoiding firefights near shrines and mosques because they do not want to anger Shiite Muslims and spark another wave of unrest.

"It's been a tough April," said Gen. Mark Hertling, whose 1st Armored Division last month extended the service of 20,000 troops by 90 days to help quell the multiple uprisings. "But we'll get back out in front of this."

April has revealed that threats against occupation forces can come from virtually anywhere. Naval Petty Officers Michael J. Pernaselli, 27, of Monroe, N.Y., and Christopher E. Watts, 28, of Knoxville, Tenn., were killed by suicide attackers April 24 when their patrol boat intercepted a dhow heading toward an Iraqi oil terminal in the Persian Gulf. The officers and Coast Guardsman Nathan B. Bruckenthal, 24, of Smithtown, N.Y., boarded the wooden boat, which exploded.

The U.S. Department of Defense keeps a spreadsheet of soldiers killed in action. Listing hometowns that include obscure hamlets and big cities, it reads like a map of America. Buffalo, N.Y.; Sterling Heights, Mich.; Oil City, Pa.; Moose Lake and Eden Prairie, Minn. The oldest to die in April was 49. More than a dozen were teenagers. Seven hundred and thirty-two troops have died since the war began.

For the U.S. military, the occupation is proving tougher than the invasion. Much of the Iraqi army didn't fight during the 19 days it took U.S. forces to reach Baghdad. American soldiers are now essentially engaged in rebuilding a country while battling increasingly aggressive guerrillas and what U.S. troops see as a propaganda war against them.

"Fighting in the streets allows the terrorists and insurgents to lessen America's technical expertise," said Mohammed Askeri, once a brigadier general in the Iraqi army. "This is annoying the American soldier. He is in tension. He often doesn't know the source of the attack. A rocket-propelled grenade. A suicide bomber. Rolling ambushes. He is not psychologically prepared for this."

Two years ago, Iraq's then-foreign minister, Tarik Aziz, famously vowed to make Iraq another Vietnam.

"Our deserts will be our jungles and our cities will be our swamps," Aziz declared. By being elusive and highly mobile, the insurgents have made this happen, said Charles Heyman, a senior defense analyst for Jane's Consulting Group in Britain.

Privately, some commanders say the tumult of April may have had a silver lining: It underscored the urgent need for more troops and better equipment, and it blasted away the claim that Iraq was approaching some kind of normalcy.

"Better this happened now than on July 5," said one U.S. general, noting that such upheaval would have likely destabilized the Iraqi caretaker government scheduled to be in place by then. "And it allowed us to expand our footprint to some areas where we clearly needed to be."

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