A strategic pattern to Iraqi strikes
Four suicide attacks killed about 40 people in Baghdad Monday. Police were hit hard.
BAGHDAD — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began under a pall of fear Monday, as a coordinated series of attacks killed about 40 people here - the most violent day in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Investigations are just beginning, but the incidents fit a pattern of increasingly organized attacks that hit soft targets to demoralize foreigners and locals working with the coalition. Iraqi police have been singled out - dozens of lightly guarded stations in Baghdad are easy targets.
The International Committee of the Red Cross was probably one of the softest targets with foreigners in Baghdad; it has a policy of using minimal security.
But if more aid workers leave the country or if Iraqi police either quit or refuse to volunteer for dangerous duty, humanitarian and law enforcement duties will revert to coalition troops - soldiers generally ill-equipped for either task.
Monday's attacks represent a hard strike at vulnerable targets. Between about 8:15 and 9:30 Monday morning, residents felt the shudder of four explosions. The first hit the Red Cross building in the wealthy neighborhood of Karada. Three other successful attacks damaged police stations manned by Iraqi police and US soldiers. A fifth suicide attack was averted when Iraqi police shot and killed the driver of an explosive-filled car. At least 27 were killed in the police station bombings, including one US soldier, and 12 were killed at the Red Cross. Many of the dead were bystanders.
Monday's evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse amid signs that the US coalition is fighting a two-front war here. One is against die-hard Hussein loyalists who stage hit-and-run attacks; and another takes on radical Islamists who may have ties to Al Qaeda and are probably coordinating the suicide attacks.
"There are indications that certainly these attacks seem to have been the operations of foreign fighters. They are not something that we have seen in the former regime loyalists," Brig. Gen Mark Hertling told a press conference on Monday.
The latest round of incidents could reverberate far beyond the immediate heartbreak and anger. The Aug. 19 truck bombing that killed 23 at the UN's Baghdad headquarters prompted an exodus of aid workers from the UN and other agencies. Some analysts fear the attack on the Red Cross could do the same.
"It's too soon to say. I hope we will stay of course," said an emotional Nada Doumani, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Baghdad while standing near the damaged building. "But if a decision is taken to reduce our presence here, the backlash will fall on the Iraqi people."
Ms. Doumani said it has always been a Red Cross principle not to have armed guards and to have only light security around their buildings. "We didn't want to have a high wall and be separated from the people we've come to help," she said. "But that may have to change."
Separating aid workers and coalition officials from Iraqis is exactly what such attacks do. Large numbers of coalition officials already spend their entire day inside the "green zone" - a walled complex of dozens of buildings at the heart of the city that is closed to noncoalition traffic.
It was a second bad day for the coalition. On Sunday, at least six missiles hit the Al Rasheed Hotel where most of the senior coalition staff live. The attack was months in the planning and used a missile-launching bay designed to look like a portable generator.
On Monday there was similar subterfuge. General Hertling said the car-bomb used against the Red Cross was disguised to look like a Red Cross or Red Crescent ambulance. At the Al Elam police station, where at least three people died, the suicide bomber also used a disguise.
"They let him in because he was wearing a police uniform," said Ali Jassim, a young policemen, blood smeared across his shirt. "He parked in front of the building and seemed to be waiting for the right moment."
A few days before Monday's attacks, Police Col. Raad al-Yass entertained a visitor with sweet tea and indicated that more suicide attacks were inevitable. From the middle of August until Monday, there had been five suicide attacks in Baghdad killing 42 people. But "as far as investigations go, we don't have any leads or clues as to who is behind these attacks," said Colonel Yass, the head of Baghdad's serious crimes unit. "It's a difficult problem, but we're putting more checkpoints on the roads, more police on the streets and that should improve the situation."
The type of in-depth investigation needed to uncover terrorist cells is not the strength of frontline troops. Coalition officials claim that investigations have largely been left in the hands of Iraqis, though Yass says: "They have a lot of information that they don't let me see." The FBI also has teams at work here.
Across Baghdad, people responded to Monday's attacks with anger and disgust. "The people who did this aren't Muslims," says Ibrahim Hussein, a gray-bearded shopkeeper 300 yards from the Al Elam police station whose windows were smashed and display cases destroyed. "For me I'm just sad, but for the whole country I am very, very angry."
Coalition officials said that despite the two days of violence, they don't see a major setback in recent events. "I still don't think we're losing any ground... our take is that we're gaining ground every day in Baghdad," said General Hertling. He conceded that the violence could be damaging to the economy. "Businesses understand there's a great level of opportunity in this part of the world, which is part of the shame of this criminal act because it's preventing Iraqis from moving forward."
Unemployment, estimated at 60 percent, is part of the security problem.
"There's a close relationship between the economy and an improvement in security," says Sadoun al-Dulame, executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "There are millions of people out there who've lost their salaries, their prestige. Some are willing to do anything."
But who exactly is behind the attacks? To some, Monday's coordinated, mass attack mirrored the style used by Al Qaeda allies around the globe.
Still, the use of suicide bombers indicates a religious motivation rather than loyalty or love for Saddam Hussein's regime. In modern history only Islamist groups, radical Marxists, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have used this weapon. "We think it's probably foreign Islamists, judging by the fact that they're using suicide as an attack. I don't know, but it could be Al Qaeda," says Yass, the serious crimes' head. "We've never had these types of attack in our history before."