Iraqi police in the cross hairs of anti-US forces

A man drove an explosives-filled Oldsmobile into a police station in Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City neighborhood early Thursday morning in a suicide bombing that killed at least nine people.

The attack on the police station was the latest in a series of incidents involving the roughly 35,000 retrained Iraqi police that the US-led governing coalition has put back onto the streets. Iraq's cops are apparently becoming targets of convenience for those opposed to the occupation. While US forces are better protected - with Kevlar, armored cars, and superior firepower - Iraqi police are lightly armed and spread thinly throughout the major cities.

"We are fighting terrorism here. We will continue to fight it until it no longer threatens the hopes of Iraqis and the rest of the world,'' said Paul Bremer, the head of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, after the attacks on the police and the killing of a Spanish diplomat Thursday morning.

José Antonio Bernal Gomez was gunned down at his home in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district, wire services reported. Mr. Gomez was the Spanish military attaché here, and is believed to be the first diplomat killed in Baghdad since the truck bombing in August that killed chief UN representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and dozens of others. Spain was one of the staunchest European backers of the war.

What Gomez and the Sadr police station have in common is that they're relatively soft targets, say police here.

"The people that want Saddam [Hussein] to come back are targeting us now. I blame the Americans; they should be doing more to protect us,'' says Iraqi police officer Ghassan Munim Khudyar. "If this keeps up, I'm going to have to quit. Why should I risk my life for people that don't like me?"

On Sept. 2, a car bomb that Iraqi police say was targeted at US-appointed Police Chief Hassan Ali tore through the main police station in Baghdad, killing one person and injuring 15.

On Oct. 3 in the northern city of Kirkuk, a grenade was lobbed into the home of local police chief Sabah Karatun, and on the same day a group of men in a car sprayed the main police station with gunfire for 15 minutes.

On Oct. 4, the main police station in the oil-refining town of Bayji in the Sunni triangle was the focus of firefights between the police and Hussein loyalists that ended with the fire-bombing of the mayor's office and three oil tankers.

That same day, Iraqi police working with coalition forces also clashed with demonstrators in Baghdad and Basra.

Observers here say it's unlikely that all of these incidents are tied to the same organizations. Thursday's bombing - a suicide attack - was likely to have been motivated by religious extremism, rather than support for Hussein.

But the attacks are emblematic of the anger directed toward America and its allies that can be found among Iraqis from all walks of life - Hussein supporters, Sunni clerics who opposed his regime as to secular, and Shiite Muslims who were disenfranchised under Saddam.

"We're in a lot more danger than the US soldiers are,'' says Khadim Hussein, a Baghdad policemen who served in the old regime's police for 30 years. "The people that are angry, they know our faces and they know where we live." Hussein says the job has grown so dangerous that he'd quit if he had a way to replace the $140 a month he receives from the coalition.

It's not unusual to find people in Baghdad who describe the police as collaborators and traitors. "We see the Americans as occupiers, and we don't like Iraqis who work with them,'' says Hosham Mohammed al-Kaisi, an imam in Baghdad.

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