Iraqi attacks on US: isolated acts?

US forces in Fallujah were ambushed Tuesday in the deadliest of a series of assaults this week.

At the intersection here where two American soldiers were attacked and killed Tuesday, a crowd of about 40 Iraqis spoke with a unanimous voice: This would not be the last deadly assault on the US military in Iraq.

"We are going to do something much bigger than that," warns Abdul Settar Hamid al-Fellahi, a driver in a long white robe. "Like what the Palestinians do to Israel, that's what we will do to the Americans."

The violence in Fallujah - which also injured nine US soldiers and damaged a helicopter - was only the latest in a series of assaults on US soldiers in Iraq this past week. US officials in Baghdad hope the attacks represent localized threats to coalition troops occupying Iraq. But military analysts say there is a danger that the incidents can't be dismissed as random, vigilante violence.

"If there are one-off attacks, they can get over it. But if this is the beginning of a series of attacks, then the coalition has a problem on its hands, and the only solution to this is to put a large numbers of troops on the ground," says Charles Heyman, the editor of Jane's World Armies in London, England.

According to Mr. Heyman, the number of US troops in Baghdad - about 20,000 plus a few hundred British troops - is far too few for a city of its size. "If you're going to dominate a city in times of insecurity, you need to have large numbers of troops." Outside the capital, he says, US and United Kingdom forces are even more thinly spread. "The US doesn't have enough infantry and the UK doesn't have enough either to control a country the size of Iraq."

On Sunday in Baqubah, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, a woman approaching US soldiers carrying two hand grenades was shot and killed. On Monday, a US Army supply convoy was attacked in Hadithah, 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing one soldier.

Later that day in western Baghdad, one US soldier was killed and three were injured when their Humvee ran over a land mine "in an apparent hostile act," according to a statement from the US Central Command. Hundreds of US soldiers passed through western Baghdad Wednesday in response.

In this spate of attacks, Fallujah - a city west of Baghdad where Saddam Hussein's Baath Party remains famously popular - is a likely focal point. "Fallujah is considered by many to be a read-out of the Baath Party," says a spokesman for ORHA, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

But Mr. Fellahi insists this is not just about Fallujah. "This is not just one message. All of these are messages aimed at making the Americans leave our country," he says.

President Bush declared the end of major combat operations at the start of May. Now US forces here are primarily engaged in a campaign to win the peace - a feat that may prove far more difficult than winning the war.

US image here is particularly vulnerable, in part because of growing public disenchantment with the pace of forming an interim civilian administration that would take charge under the aegis of coalition forces. The Bush administration has decided to delay the creation of an interim authority until, as some US officials here describe it, they can find an appropriate balance of people who will be representative of all Iraqis and can manage the postwar transition.

L. Paul Bremer III, the new civilian administrator for Iraq, said the US aims to call a national conference in mid-July to create an interim authority, but there are still no specific dates or procedures for setting it up.

US representatives in Baghdad defend the decision to postpone, expressing a need to "get it right the first time," as one official put it. They also raise concerns that the Iraqi National Congress (INC) - a group of parties that was poised to take power - may be more reflective of returning exiles than Iraqis in general. But the longer it takes to establish indigenous Iraqi authority, the more frustrated Iraqis are liable to become.

"It's unworkable for the Americans to show themselves as these aggressive troops," says Ali Abdul Ameer, the spokesman for the Iraqi National Accord, part of the INC. "We need police in the street. You cannot put an American soldier in a tank on the corner instead of a police officer."

An INC spokesman says the organization hopes to form a security force trained by US and UK forces to end the widespread sense of insecurity in urban areas. "The former Iraqi police do not have the strength and the power to perform their duties," says the INC's Entifadh Qanbar.

Yet even if newly uniformed Iraqi policemen and politicians promising democracy filled the streets here, Fallujah might still be a hub of anti-US sentiment. Fallujah and the larger Ramadi region was known to be loyal to Saddam Hussein. This is a Sunni tribal area full of well-watered farmlands and enormous homes - testaments to the fact that people here fared well under Mr. Hussein's regime.

Last month, just after the war ended, US troops fired into crowds of protesters on two occasions, killing 18 people and injuring more than 70. Anger over those incidents still lingers, and crowds of men talk heatedly about the coming "resistance" movement against the US presence here.

"In a few days, if nothing improves in our country, you will see this every day," says Yaser Mahmoud.

"It's a popular resistance. We are going to have a jihad for our country," says Khaled Hilali, a retired, graying teacher who waited patiently to have his say. Within a few days of the Gulf War in 1991, he and others complain, Hussein quickly rebuilt damaged infrastructure.

Seven weeks since the fall of Hussein's regime in Baghdad, however, many people remain without electricity and clean water - a fact some Iraqis blame on the US.

The US initially reported that during Tuesday's attack here, launched primarily from two cars shooting rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, some of the shots emanated from a nearby mosque.

But the mosque's sheikh, who declined to be interviewed by foreign journalists, sent out a message via an Iraqi interpreter saying that the mosque was not used for anything other than prayer.

"We are encouraging people not to fight the American army," said Sheikh Hamza al-Issawi. "But it would be better for the Americans to work harder to do something for the people, who barely have enough to eat."

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