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U.S. soldiers are edgier, Iraqis angrier as security tightens

Monday, June 23, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. troops are quicker to pull weapons now. They keep cars at a distance. They frisk pedestrians. They break into homes to seize weapons and men.

They are working harder to protect themselves, taking lessons from the guerrilla-style attacks that have increasingly been targeting troops in Baghdad. Nine Americans have died in hostile actions this month alone -- including a U.S. soldier killed Sunday in a grenade attack south of the Iraqi capital.

For Iraqis living under these security measures, the U.S. occupation has become an increasingly hostile, and the spiraling assaults a just retribution.

"I was so happy to see American blood spilled that I slaughtered a chicken to celebrate," said Mohammed Abbas, 29, who witnessed last week's fatal shooting of a soldier at a Baghdad gas station.

The attacks appear to be widening the chasm between Americans and Iraqis. Each time another American is killed, suspicion and security measures increase.

Just after the war, there appeared to be a brief honeymoon period. With Saddam Hussein gone, Iraqis poured into the street to greet their liberators. Patrolling Humvees drew hordes of shouting, waving children and even a few adults.

Those crowds are smaller now. And with the rise in ambushes, Americans are more wary of them.

"Most anybody could be a threat. You're just more on your toes. You want to be aware of people's hands, especially if they're hidden," says Staff Sgt. John Woods, of Atlanta, of the 1st Armored Division.

"I'm looking at people walking next to me, people walking between the vehicles. You can tell when people are doing something wrong. They're nervous. They huddle," says Spc. Richard Marsh of San Antonio, also with the 1st Armored Division.

Not sure of responsibility

No one is sure who's behind the attacks. Perhaps Saddam loyalists are regrouping. Maybe ordinary Iraqis have soured on the U.S.-led occupation and its rough edges. Muslim militants, disgruntled former soldiers and non-Iraqi "holy warriors" are also suspects.

"There are a lot of people out there who have lost a privileged life under Saddam and have an interest in keeping the situation unstable," said Mehdi Hafedh, vice president of the pro-democracy group Iraqi Independent Democrats.

"And there are also Sunnis who are afraid of the power the Shiites will have in the country," added Hafedh. The Shiites, a majority in Iraq, were persecuted under Saddam's Sunni regime. They are expected to have a major say in how Iraq should be ruled.

Hafedh said only an Iraqi government can bring stability.

Sheik Abdul-Wahid al-Zoubaie, a preacher who follows the strict Wahhabi sect practiced in Saudi Arabia, said the anti-U.S. attacks have increased because Americans have broken their promise to make life better and because of security measures Iraqis find humiliating.

"The Americans are liars," said al-Zoubaie. "They lied when they said they were coming here to rebuild Iraq. If the highhandedness continues, the attacks will continue to rise."

As more Americans die of gunshots and grenade blasts, the occupation clamps down harder. Huge sweeps, including the current Operation Desert Scorpion, bring in hundreds of innocent civilians in handcuffs, sometimes dragged from their beds in the middle of the night.

Boosting security means increased pat-downs and raids on homes and businesses, where soldiers bash down doors and force people to the ground with shouts and at gunpoint.

"You have to go in there and completely dominate the situation," Maj. Michael Shrout, operations officer for the 1st Armored Division's 1st Brigade. "Unfortunately it scares ... them. After it's resolved, you've got to make sure the Iraqis understand why you're doing it, that it's for the future of Iraq."

In a west Baghdad police station, soldiers from the Army's 615th Military Police Company help Iraqi officers guard the station and accompany them on patrols. U.S. troops and Iraqi officers on these patrols have been wounded or killed by assailants firing a Kalashnikov or rocket-propelled grenade.

As a result, MPs have asked Iraqis not to park in front of police stations.

"Anyone could turn that car into a bomb," said Staff Sgt. Darren Brown, 33, of Ridge Crest, Calif.

Even with all the precautions, soldiers get killed.

"I pull out my picture of my little daughter and I hope I can see her again," said Sgt Michael Taylor, 29, of Centerville, Ohio. "It hurts. It makes you feel that you could be next."

For Iraqis, the stricter measures come at a time when many wonder if they will ever have money again. Millions of Iraqis lost jobs simply because the government and army no longer exist. Many are running out of meager savings.

The situation is exacerbated by a lack of security that forces Iraqis to stay home after sunset and little electricity, which means no fans, air conditioning or cool drinks to ease the summer heat.

On Iraqi streets, wild rumors abound about American soldiers: They take liberties with Iraqi women, they beat up Iraqis, steal and kidnap girls. Some say life is no better than under Saddam.

"Saddam never let us stand in front of his palaces. The occupiers, like him, keep us at a distance, fire at us, humiliate us," said Mohammed Qassem, 24, an unemployed civil engineer.

Pointing to a group of U.S. troops going into an electronics store, Qassem said: "I hate the sight of them shopping. They have the money to buy things we cannot afford. Do they care we are getting poorer? No. They only think of themselves."

However, Hassan Butros, also unemployed, said he feared the mounting anti-U.S. attacks will only bring more hardships to Iraqis. "They will make the Americans more nervous and that would make their treatment harsher," said Butros, 31.

"Just as a tree bends in the direction of strong winds so should Iraq bend to the strong will of the United States," he added. "Otherwise, we won't be able to live."


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