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Iraq: Do the Attacks Against U.S. Forces Pose A Serious Threat?

The number of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq is rising. The increasing tensions are seen in Baghdad and the mostly Sunni areas around the capital. But do the attacks present a serious challenge to U.S. troops?

Prague, 23 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Every week -- seemingly every day -- brings grim news for the U.S. military out of Iraq. Typically, one or two soldiers are killed at a time in an enemy attack -- sniper fire, grenades, or land mines. The attackers sometimes escape. The mood among soldiers is reported to be tense.

This past weekend was no different. One U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in a grenade attack on a military convoy south of Baghdad.

In fact, nearly 50 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations on the first day of May. Many of these have been accidental deaths, but the number of soldiers killed by hostile fire is increasing and looks set to rise further in the coming weeks and months.

Dissatisfaction with the U.S. occupation in Iraq is growing. Iraqis blame the U.S. for almost all of their problems -- electricity cuts, lawlessness, the lack of gasoline, and even traffic jams.

They say the U.S. did not keep its promise to create an Iraqi administration and does not want to transfer power. Last week, former Iraqi soldiers demonstrated in Baghdad against a decision by the U.S. civil administration to dissolve the army. The soldiers said it leaves them without money or jobs, and some threatened to start a guerilla war.

Julian Lindley-French is an expert on U.S. security studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, a think tank associated with NATO's Partnership for Peace. He says the attacks are to be expected. He told RFE/RL that U.S. troops are attacked for the simple reason that they are inside the country and that the U.S. is not loved in the Middle East.

"Ultimately, the United States is regarded in that part of the world -- rightly or wrongly -- as being an occupier, an imperial occupier by many members of society. In the same way the British are, and that's always can be a problem for us, even if we are there, as we are, to do good," Lindley-French said.

Lindley-French said the attacks are likely coming from hard-core supporters of former President Saddam Hussein and from foreign fighters from neighboring Arab countries. He said the U.S. has the military means to keep the situation under control.

Neil Partrick is an analyst with the Middle East and Africa section of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London. He told RFE/RL not everyone who attacks the U.S. troops is a Saddam Hussein loyalist.

"It seems very likely that there would be remnants of military and security services and in some instances people who are just genuinely opposed to the occupation forces without necessarily wishing to create a replica of the former regime," Partrick said.

The Iraqi population is becoming increasingly hostile to the U.S. and what was widely seen as a liberation three months ago is now understood as an occupation.

Partrick said the U.S. military takes the attacks seriously. Recently, the U.S. military deployed some 4,000 troops in the mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad, where many of the attacks have originated.

But he said the additional deployment is not an indication that U.S. control over that area or the wider country is under threat. He said it is a preventive move. "These attacks that have taken place have been relatively sporadic and the casualties -- although they are politically difficult in terms of U.S. public opinion -- are probably manageable. But the U.S. decided that it did not want to obviously subject its forces to these attacks and also wishes to try to contain various forms of resistance," he said.

Partrick said the decision by chief U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer to dissolve the Iraqi Army only increases the tensions. "It's quite possible that Ambassador Bremer may regret to some extent the decision that was taken, but I also understand that they are now moving relatively quickly to try to establish at least some kind at least interim security force," Partrick said. Bremer's decision has left many soldiers jobless and angry. The army is also a symbol of national pride for many Iraqis.

Partrick said the creation of a new Iraqi force in a couple of weeks may ease tensions and change the situation. He also said it is important to give an Iraqi face to what obviously is now a U.S.-dominated administration.

Analysts also say that U.S. troops are relatively inexperienced at dealing in foreign environments. Just a few weeks ago, for example, U.S. troops were body-searching Muslim women at military checkpoints. This caused anger among Muslim men and clerics who condemned the searches during Friday prayers.

Lindley-French contrasts this with the experience of British troops in the southern city of Basra. He says the British soldiers are behaving more sensitively and, because of this, have not yet lost a man.

Partrick disagreed: "The Brits really aren't in major numbers anywhere else but in Basra and certainly not outside of Shi'a areas. They are not present in Baghdad and they are not present in the areas to the north and west of Baghdad, which of course is where some significant opposition has come in terms of armed opposition."

Partrick said that there were anti-British demonstrations in Basra, but Shi'a Muslims, who suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein, haven't yet taken up arms against the coalition forces.