In tough Iraqi conflict, civilians pay high price

The death toll for US soldiers passed 500 last week; Iraqi civilian deaths are in the thousands.

Sunday witnessed the single deadliest car bombing in Baghdad yet. At eight on that foggy morning, a car loaded with 1,000 pounds of explosives rammed into the main entrance to the coalition's sprawling compound, killing 25 people.

But the attack at the aptly nicknamed "Assassin's Gate" could only have been designed as a symbolic strike on the US, officials say. Aside from the contingent of soldiers guarding the gate, wearing body armor and stationed behind heavy fortifications, there aren't any US targets there. The buildings that house the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority are at least half a mile away.

Instead, the principal target of the attacks seems to have been Iraqi civilian workers, hundreds of whom line up at the gate every morning for security screenings before going inside to take up jobs cleaning and carrying out basic construction. Of the 25 or so people killed, at least 23 were Iraqis, and the latest outrage brought home that average civilians continue to bear the brunt of deaths inside the country.

"These terrorists say they're out to hit the Americans, but it's average Iraqis who get killed every time,'' says Maryam Ali Haider, whose husband, Fadel, was badly injured in the blast. "They don't want to let us live in peace."

There aren't any reliable statistics on the numbers of Iraqis killed in Iraq since the war. The US-led coalition says it doesn't try to keep track. But while US military deaths from all causes reached 500 over the weekend, most analysts in Iraq say the local civilian death toll is some multiple of that, numbering well into the thousands.

Iraqis typically respond with a complicated, conflicting set of emotions to such attacks. On the one hand there's anger at the perpetrators and an acknowledgement they are at the root of the problem. But there is also anger and frustration at the US for many, who can't understand why the most powerful military in the world can't make them feel safe.

"The US did us a great favor by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but they're failing completely at keeping us safe, and that's causing us to lose our respect for them,'' says Abdul Jabar al-Kabi, a butcher attending a demonstration Monday that demanded the US hold elections here by June. "That attack was horrible - it shows that we could do a much better job if we were put in charge."

To be sure, the rise in frustration over the security situation has been matched by an increase in Iraqi civilians willing to step forward and report on suspicious activity in their communities or rumors of planned attacks. US commanders, from the Sunni Triangle in the center of the country to the far north, say a growing awareness of the damage the insurgents do to local communities has led to that change.

"A lot more people have been coming forward,'' says Col. Steven Russel, a commander in Tikrit. That's in part, he says, "because people recognize that when someone takes a shot at us with a [rocket-propelled grenade], they usually miss and it hits an Iraqi house."

One example of this was the killing of three foreigners in a Baghdad house on Monday. US soldiers responded to a tip from locals that there were armed men there, and when they arrived to check it out they were fired upon. Soldiers killed the three men in the house, two Yemenis and a Syrian, who were subsequently labeled foreign terrorists.

"We know these foreigners who hate Iraq are sneaking into our country,'' says Mustafa Qasim, a Baghdad resident. "They're the ones behind the terror attacks and all Iraqis will work to stop them."

There is a flip side to this, however, and it gets to the mixed feelings many Iraqis have about the US presence. The rules of engagement instruct US soldiers to bring withering force to bear on positions they're attacked from, even when an insurgent ducks into a private house for cover.

One sergeant in northern Iraq puts it this way: "If someone runs into a house, we're going to light it up. If civilians get killed in there, that's a tragedy, but we're going to keep doing it and people are going to get the message that they should do whatever they can to keep these people out of their neighborhoods."

There has also been a growing toll of innocent lives in mistaken attacks by US soldiers, including a series of shootings on the nation's roads by US forces that have killed men, women, and children in recent weeks.

"This is no way to live,'' says Salah Hasan, a Baghdad school teacher. "The attacks are getting worse, life is getting worse and what this tells us is that we should take over our own affairs as soon as possible."

The brothers Hasan and Fadel Ali Haider - Fadel is married to Maryam and was hurt in the suicide attack on Sunday - represent the common Iraqi contradiction of gratitude for America's removal of the tyrant Saddam Hussein coupled with anger that their lives seem to be getting more difficult.

On Sunday, they got up shortly after dawn, ate some cold bread and soup with their families and trekked over to their work site through an uncharacteristic Baghdad morning fog.

As usual, their talk drifted to the risks they were taking in pursuing the first steady work they'd had since Baghdad fell to the US last spring, a $5-a-day job clearing twisted steel beams and rubble from a government building destroyed by US missiles at the start of last year's invasion.

Every morning, US soldiers line them up with hundreds of others outside the blast barrier at the Assassin's Gate, a vulnerable bottleneck. The brothers don't work in the compound, but the soldiers made them go through the procedure, concerned that attacks could be mounted on them from their worksite.

As they settled into their hour-long wait in line, Fadel and Hasan's worst fears were realized. Fadel remembers little before waking up in Yarmuk Hospital hours later following successful surgery to remove shrapnel from his head.

Shuddering in pain and still wearing his tattered Adidas track suit, Fadel says he's lucky to be alive. "We always knew that we were a target here. Our families were worried. But money wasn't going to come from anywhere else."

His brother Hasan was even more fortunate. Speaking in a blood-splattered shirt at his brother's bedside, he says he can't believe he was unharmed. "We just have to thank God - it can't be understood." Men to either side of him were killed, rendered unrecognizable by the blast.

He has the 1,000-yard stare of the recently traumatized as he speaks in a monotone about his family's struggles since Hussein's fall. After the war, business for his small tailoring business dried up, and he closed up his shop. His brothers Fadel and Muhsin, who had always worked as laborers, also lost their steady work, just as the monthly rent doubled in the postwar housing shortage.

Three weeks ago, the brothers were delighted to be hired for the demolition job, perhaps not appreciating the irony that such work may eventually move on to the building where they now make their home. Hasan was hoping that it would mean he could send his two teenage sons back to school. They dropped out and have been selling cigarettes on the street to help the family for the past few months.

No one slept last night, including 4-year-old Selman, who doesn't understand what has happened. "Who hurt daddy?' he asks, turning to his mother. "Was it the Americans?"

"How are the poor ever going to get out from under this,'' says Hasan's wife, Awatti, stroking his hair. "We know this wasn't the Americans' fault, what these terrorists did, but they aren't doing enough to help us."

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