Wolfowitz, in Iraq, sees mixed picture

An attack Sunday on a Baghdad hotel killed a US colonel, the highest-ranking officer slain in Iraq.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the leading exponents of the war in Iraq, Sunday wrapped up a tour intended to portray a nation on the mend. While here, Mr. Wolfowitz visited a refurbished museum, spoke to citizens who told him how glad they are that Saddam Hussein was ousted, and toured training facilities for new Iraqi policemen.

But an attack on his heavily guarded hotel Sunday morning was a clear counterpoint to his upbeat message. And despite numerous successes, a new poll shows that while Iraqis are happy to be rid of Mr. Hussein, they're increasingly unhappy with the coalition.

In a recent seven-city poll, the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that 50 percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of coalition forces, with 33 percent supporting their presence. The numbers also indicate steep declines in support.

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"The Iraqi people suffered for a long time under the previous regime, and they have no space left for patience,'' says Sadoun al-Dulame, who coordinated the poll. "The Iraqi people want America's liberal values, not more American soldiers." Mr. Dulame points out that 95 percent of Iraqis identify fair and regular elections as the nation's top political priority.

This mixed attitude is exemplified by Ahmed al-Dhim, a date salesman who's doing a brisk business with shoppers preparing for the holy month of Ramadan, which starts Tuesday. Dates are the traditional way for Muslims to break their dawn-to-dusk fast. "The coalition is doing a dreadful job, look at that explosion this morning. I wonder what they came here for?"

But when asked how the date business was last year, he said he wouldn't know. "I was being forced to serve in Saddam's army. If I'd deserted they would have tortured me. God, I hated it."

Wolfowitz was upbeat when he arrived in Baghdad on Friday. He told reporters that the military "is taking the fight to the enemy,'' and he expanded on US successes during visits to the oil-rich northern town of Kirkuk and to Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in the Sunni Triangle, where the bulk of attacks have been launched.

In Kirkuk, he toured the restored museum with a multiethnic group of religious leaders, and in Tikrit he praised the creation of local security forces: "These young Iraqis are stepping forward to fight for their country along with us.... It's a wonderful success story that speaks volumes." But hours after Wolfowitz flew out of Tikrit, a US Blackhawk helicopter crash-landed after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

This was followed by the attack on the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, which literally brought the fighting to Wolfowitz's doorstep. The hotel lies inside the heavily guarded "green zone" where most of the top officials of the US led coalition live and work. It was hit by at least six rockets shortly after dawn on Sunday morning, killing a US colonel, the highest-ranking officer yet killed in Iraq. Fifteen other people were injured.

Wolfowitz, staying in an upper floor of the hotel at the end of his four-day tour, was unhurt and was hustled out of the building ahead of a general evacuation of roughly 200 residents.

After the attack, US administrator Paul Bremer said he didn't think security in the country was deteriorating. "I don't think that is true," Mr. Bremer told ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," when asked whether he thought Sunday's attacks were a sign that security was worsening. Bremer conceded, however, that evidence suggested anti-US forces were "getting better organized."

The attack was of a sophistication rarely seen here. The rockets were loaded onto a small trailer that was disguised to look like a portable generator. The attackers drove the trailer to a park at the edge of the walled quarter-mile perimeter that seals the coalition area from the rest of Baghdad. They unhitched it from their car and fled, with the rockets shooting forth moments later, apparently on a timer.

At least six of them struck between the fourth and eighth floors of the hotel a little after 6 a.m., with a series of explosions waking people up throughout the city. The US military said the attack could have been much worse. When US troops arrived to inspect the trailer, they found 11 of the rockets loaded into the home-made launching bay hadn't discharged.

"I've heard the term 'sophisticated' bandied about. I wouldn't say that. I'd say clever, perhaps,'' said US Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey. He said the trailer was also found to be booby-trapped by arriving soldiers, who managed to defuse those explosives. General Dempsey estimated the attack, with rockets with ranges of up to four miles, was probably preceded by months of preparation.

Too much, of course, can be made of isolated incidents, since Tikrit is a hotbed of anti-American resistance and Baghdad is also within the Sunni Triangle. But the Iraq center's poll also found that the coalition is losing support from Iraq's Shiite majority. The center found that while 40 percent of the citizens of the largely Shiite city of Basra saw the coalition as liberators six months ago, that has since dropped to 7.7 percent, while those viewing the coalition as occupiers have increased from 52.3 percent from 75.7 percent.

Iraqi perceptions of the role of the coalition forces grow more negative

• How did you perceive the coalition forces when they first arrived, compared to six months later?

First arrived/six months later:

Occupying force: 45.9 percent/66.6 percent.

Liberating force: 42 percent/14.8 percent

Peacekeepers: 4.6 percent/10 percent

• Over the past three months, would you say the conditions for peace and stability in Iraq have improved, worsened, or stayed the same?

Improved: 23 percent

Worsened: 46 percent

Remained the same: 18.1 percent

• Do you support or oppose the presence of coalition forces in Iraq?

Support: 33 percent

Oppose: 50 percent

Source: Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. The poll of 1,620 Iraqis was conducted in seven cities from Sept. 28 to Oct. 10. The margin of error is 3 percent.

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