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Iraq: Civilians -- Not U.S. Soldiers -- Becoming Targets Of Choice In Bombings

This week's car bombings in Iraq appear to confirm a trend that Iraqi civilians -- not U.S. soldiers -- are becoming the target of choice for the anticoalition insurgency. While it's still unclear who's orchestrating the attacks, the bombings appear to be aimed at sowing discontent and fear among the general population.

Prague, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Two massive bomb attacks in Iraq this week appear to follow a pattern of targeting Iraqi civilians cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition.

Early today, at least 46 Iraqis were killed when a car bomb exploded at an Iraqi Army recruiting center in Baghdad. Most of the casualties were civilian recruits. A witness, Abbas Fadhil, described the scene: "I was with a group of about 200 young Iraqis, standing in the street, and they struck at us [with the bomb]. The Americans were not affected because they were inside the recruiting center."

Yesterday, a car bomb killed some 50 people at a police station in Al-Iskandariyah, 40 kilometers south of the capital. Most of those killed were civilian job applicants.

The attacks appear to reflect a shift by the anticoalition insurgency away from targeting U.S. and coalition soldiers in favor of hitting softer civilian targets -- particularly Iraqis working with or seeking work from the coalition.

On 1 February, more than 100 civilians died in twin bomb attacks on the party headquarters of two pro-U.S. Kurdish parties. Just three weeks ago, some 20 Iraqi civilians died in a massive suicide-bomb attack outside the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad.

"I mean, the Iraqis will be well aware that anyone seen collaborating with the U.S. or with any of the coalition forces is almost certainly signing a death warrant -- both from themselves and just as certainly for their families."
The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has been hard-pressed to identify the attackers or to stop the bombings. Officials have variously blamed elements of former leader Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, surviving units of Saddam's Fedayeen militia, and international terrorists.

The U.S. this week announced it has found evidence suggesting Al-Qaeda may be at least partly responsible for some of the attacks. Officials say a raid on an alleged Al-Qaeda safehouse in Baghdad yielded a 17-page document detailing plans to exploit religious rifts in Iraq to thwart the coalition's aims.

Coalition forces today were quick to point the finger of blame for today's attack at Al-Qaeda and another terrorist group, Ansar Al-Islam. U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Baker said: "At this moment, it is impossible for us to determine who is responsible for the attack today. We do speculate that this does fit the operating technique of Al-Qaeda or Ansar Al-Islam."

The bombings are complicating U.S. efforts for a quick and orderly transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities. Building up the Iraqi Army and police are seen as crucial parts of that effort.

This week, a team of UN diplomats is in Iraq to determine whether elections can be held before a 30 June deadline set by the United States for transferring sovereignty. Some speculate the bombings may be aimed at convincing the UN that Iraq is not secure enough to hold a vote.

The attacks also appear to be fanning flames of anti-Americanism, since it is now Iraqis and not Americans who are dying. RFE/RL correspondent Sami Alkhoja was at the scene of today's bombing in Baghdad. He said witnesses were quick to blame the Americans. "I spoke to some Iraqi people, and they said they feel it is like an American attack or an American plan," he reported. "It is like they blame the Americans, 'Where were they? They usually are outside on the gates, but today they were not, and this is unusual.' They were describing the scene, and they were saying there were no American soldiers at the gate at the time of the explosion."

Yesterday's bombing of the police station in Iskandariya later deteriorated into a riot as angry mobs descended on the station, apparently convinced that U.S. forces themselves had orchestrated the attack -- or at the very least had not done enough to prevent it.

Phillip Mitchell, a military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says part of the problem is what he called the "heavy-handed" approach used by the U.S. military in dealing with Iraqi civilians -- especially when securing bomb sites. "Following one of the bombs [in Al-Iskandariyah], there was a very heavy-handed approach by the U.S. forces, which only exacerbated the reaction of the locals to one of those bombing incidents," he said. "It's that sort of approach that has got to be softened."

RFE/RL correspondent Sami Shoresh says many Iraqis do, indeed, oppose the U.S.-led occupation, but he adds they also strongly oppose the bombings and killings. He says the popular view is that the insurgency will not lead to peace. "Yes, Iraqis are not with the invasion or they are not with the occupation. But at the same time they think that ending any kind of occupation [can happen only] through peaceful means, political means, and they are busy now with this kind of means -- not through these suicide attacks," he said.

Mitchell says the attacks do serve at least one immediate purpose -- to sow fear among ordinary Iraqis. Among other things, he says this will complicate U.S. efforts to build up intelligence networks, which are necessary to get at the roots of the insurgency. "It must be extremely difficult [for the United States] -- given the opposition forces in the area -- to obtain human intelligence," he said. "I mean, the Iraqis will be well aware that anyone seen collaborating with the U.S. or with any of the coalition forces is almost certainly signing a death warrant -- both from themselves and just as certainly for their families."
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.