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Iraq blast fits pattern of sabotage

Tuesday's bombing of UN office in Baghdad is latest in string of attacks intended to sow chaos, erode US control.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2003


Insurgents opposed to the US presence in Iraq increasingly appear to have adopted a new strategy: create chaos by striking a wide range of targets.

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Tuesday's suicide truck-bomb explosion at UN headquarters in Baghdad was but the latest in a string of attacks aimed at civilian and economic sites. Jordan's embassy in Baghdad was shattered by a similar bomb Aug. 7. Over the weekend Iraqi oil, water, and electricity lines were all hit by saboteurs.

The coordination involved in this campaign is unknown. US officials have said they believe that the violent Iraqi opposition is a polyglot mix of Saddam Hussein die-hards, Islamist terrorists, and criminals.

But some Western analysts believe that an influx of foreigners is driving this violence. Radical Muslims bent on jihad are now flooding into Iraq, some say, as they poured into Afghanistan during its years of Soviet occupation.

Whoever the perpetrators, their aim may be to convince the mass of Iraqis who are neither strongly anti- nor pro-American that the current situation is intolerable. They probably want to layer fear on top of the frustration and anger already felt by an Iraqi population whose economy and infrastructure are in shambles.

"The whole purpose is to demonstrate that the Americans are not in control. Nobody is safe," says a former intelligence officer with 25 years experience in the region.

The explosion at the UN's Baghdad headquarters, based in a three-story converted hotel, was the deadliest attack on an Iraqi soft target yet.

The nature of the strike showed the desperation of those who oppose the US presence in Iraq, claimed President Bush in an audio statement from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He vowed that the US would persevere.

"The terrorists who struck today have again shown their contempt for the innocent; they showed their fear of progress and their hatred of peace," said Mr. Bush. "They're the enemies of the Iraqi people."

An enormous amount of explosives was used in the attack, according to Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner now involved in the Iraqi rebuilding effort. The force of the blast ripped off the front of the building.

Early reports from the United Nations said that at least 14 people had been killed, including the top UN official in the country, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Bystanders - the concerned, the curious, and the media - could only speculate about the nature of the blast as dusk fell in Baghdad.

One man said the bomber had been in a cement mixer whose driver was still in the vehicle as the explosion occurred.

The US military swarmed over the area in the wake of the attack, with dozens of Humvees converging on the site and helicopters circling overhead.

Those on the scene found it difficult to imagine a motive. The UN does not have a central role in Iraqi reconstruction at the moment, though it does distribute aid.

The UN's oil-for-food program, now being phased out in the wake of the US invasion, has funded regular food rations that have kept Iraqis fed for several years. Although the UN is associated in many Iraqis' minds with efforts to find and destroy Iraq's weapons, it has also maintained extensive humanitarian programs in the country.

The attack may have been "because there were so many foreigners there, probably," says Feriyal Scott, personnel director of the World Health Organization office in Baghdad. "And probably because the UN did not support the previous government [of Iraq]."

Analysts outside the country said that while they could not be sure about the reasons for the attack, it was likely the UN building was chosen almost at random because it was both a symbol of the West and vulnerable.