Next challenge in Iraq: Sabotage

The country's electrical infrastructure and oil pipelines are being targeted.

The ambush failed - but no one was caught. Neither was anyone wounded when up to six Iraqi men fired two rocket-propelled grenades at an American patrol Wednesday.

Such near misses - and many direct hits - are increasingly frequent. Combined with acts of sabotage, brazen pillaging, and the burning of some government facilities, they are undermining US efforts to rebuild.

Many Iraqis are aghast. But those willing to help occupation forces face intimidation and sometimes lethal attack. To restore order, some suggest that the US apply a firm hand - just like Saddam Hussein used to do.

"Catch them and hang them," an Iraqi recently advised a senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "You've got to understand: Lampposts in Iraq were not meant to illuminate the streets."

While there may be little chance of exacting such tough measures in the new Iraq - the soon-to-be rebuilt justice system rules out the death penalty - continuing instability across Iraq is focusing US attention on how to regain control.

The best way to deal with "political sabotage" that targets key infrastructure, some observers say, is to show the majority of Iraqis that progress and prosperity are inevitable, as well the creation of a government run by Iraqis.

The top US official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, accused remnants of Hussein's regime of sabotaging the power grids and promised Wednesday to do everything possible to fix the damage.

"They are trying to hinder the coalition's efforts to make life better for the average Iraqi person ... but we are not going to let them succeed," he said.

In the aftermath of the war, oil pipelines have been targeted and bombed. Electricity infrastructure, such as substations and pylons, have also been sabotaged - and a top Iraqi electricity official murdered. Such actions, along with orders to destroy all government buildings, facilities, and records, were laid out in a set of instructions to Iraqi intelligence agencies before the war, to render Iraq ungovernable if the Hussein regime should disappear.

"It's so obvious," says a CPA official. "Take out the electricity, just as it is getting so hot. Hit key installations, and then kill or intimidate those Iraqis who are trying to work with the CPA."

Andrew Bearpark, a veteran chief of rebuilding efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo was drafted last month to play the same role in Iraq. He says that "there are not enough tanks in the world to have a tank at every electricity pylon." Still, he adds, there is nothing he has not seen before, and "progress has been faster here than any other theater" where he has worked.

"We have to look holistically," Mr. Bearpark told a press briefing. "My stress is to look at all the system ... and to keep on the upward curve."

"Bad guys use gas and oil pipelines as tools to make things worse for people," Bearpark says. "I'm not seeing insuperable obstacles."

While the US military launched Operation Sidewinder in Hussein strongholds north of Baghdad earlier this week, and several large sweeping operations before that in flashpoint areas, attacks have nonetheless multiplied.

The near-miss Wednesday morning is just one example, and the attackers are changing tactics, too. The 2nd Battalion 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment operating in the fields, palm forests, and southern Baghdad villages of Doura, have been coping with men who slip away in the tall elephant grass.

"We know they've moved out of the city and set up weapons caches and safe houses in the area, and probably do some training," says an intelligence captain, who asked not to be named. A failed ambush attempt two weeks ago netted one prisoner and some weaponry and explosive switching devices close to a local mosque. Some 1,500 bullets were found in the mosque.

Intelligence officers from several units say that, because Iraqis know US troops rarely enter mosques, they suspect in some cases the structures have been used to store weapons. The explosion that rocked Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, on Tuesday, destroyed parts of a mosque and killed at least six students, including the imam.

Despite claims by some Iraqis that US missiles were responsible - a claim flatly denied by US forces - others say the explosion was caused when stockpiled ammunition blew up, or when explosive chemicals were being "cooked."

In such a charged atmosphere, a new CPA-appointed Political Council to choose ministers and members of a larger constitutional assembly in mid-July is meant to be a milestone. But Iraqis are complaining it will be hand-picked by Mr. Bremer.

"I don't think this is going to stop sabotage - if anything, you will see an intensification of sabotage," says a senior Western official. "When the Political Council is stood up, it's not going to have magical power. We would be making a big mistake if we said it could solve what is going on. Those lines don't link."

Beyond that political carrot, a new Iraqi police force is being formed to carry a stick. But many say the first weeks after the fall of Baghdad set the tone, as looters ran wild, and officials in Washington and commanders in Iraq refrained from controlling it.

"In hindsight, martial law should have been declared with a 24-hour curfew for a day or two, and a shoot-to-kill policy for looters. Then a 20-hour curfew, and open it up gradually," says the senior official. "But Washington believed Iraqis would surge forth in their gratitude ... [not] surge forth to ransack Mansur."

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