Humanitarian groups begin to pull out of Iraq

Thursday, October 30, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Insurgents destroyed an American tank north of Baghdad, killing two U.S. soldiers, and wounded seven Ukrainians in the first ambush against the multinational force patrolling central Iraq, officials said Wednesday. The attacks were part of a dramatic upsurge in recent days.

U.S. policy in Iraq suffered another setback when the international Red Cross announced it was reducing its international staff in the country, two days after a deadly suicide car bombing at its Baghdad headquarters. The humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, also announced it had pulled out workers.

Secretary of State Colin Powell had urged the Red Cross and other nongovernment organizations to stay in Iraq because "if they are driven out, then the terrorists win."

The Iraqi Governing Council blamed the upsurge on foreign fighters. The council on Wednesday called on neighboring countries to crack down on infiltrators crossing into Iraq and provide Iraqi authorities with information about former regime figures who may be hiding on their soil, according to a statement carried by the Arabic language television statement Al-Jazeera.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari will raise the border issue during a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Damascus, Syria next week, Al-Jazeera said.

The latest attacks -- 233 over the last seven days according to the U.S. military -- have driven the combat death toll during the occupation above the number killed before President Bush declared an end to active combat on May 1.

Two American soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were killed and one was wounded late Tuesday when their Abrams battle tank apparently hit a land mine near Balad, 45 miles north of Baghdad, division spokeswoman Maj. Jossyln Aberle said.

Their deaths brought to 117 the number of American soldiers killed by hostile fire since May 1.

A total of 114 U.S. soldiers were killed between the start of the war March 20 and the end of April.

It was the first M1 Abrams battle tank destroyed since May 1, military officials said. Several of the 68-ton vehicles -- the mainstay of the Army's armored forces -- were disabled in combat before May 1.

The ambush of the Ukrainians occurred Tuesday night when two armored personnel carriers rolled over land mines near Suwayrah, about 40 miles southeast of Baghdad.

After the vehicles were disabled, gunmen opened fire on the disembarked soldiers, a spokesman for the multinational division at Camp Babylon said on condition of anonymity.

The spokesman said it was the first ambush against the Polish-led force that since September has been patrolling a belt of central Iraq south of the capital. About 1,650 Ukrainians are serving in the Polish-led force of some 9,500 peacekeepers.

In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it would remain in Iraq, but would reduce the number of international staff -- now about 30 -- and increase security for those who stay. The agency has 600 Iraqi employees.

"The ICRC remains committed to helping the people of Iraq," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the agency's director of operations.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, which operates clinics and helps at a hospital in Baghdad, said some of its international staff had left Baghdad for Jordan.

Officials of the group said medical personnel had been scheduled to leave Baghdad in the near future, but their departure was hastened by the Red Cross attack.

"The reduction was foreseen," spokeswoman Linda Van Weyenberg said. "It was sped up because of events. It's a balance between the security of the staff and the needs of the population." She did not say how many staffers left. The group previously said it had seven international staffers in Baghdad.

Baghdad police commander Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Obeid on Wednesday announced measures to bolster security in the capital, including additional 24-hour checkpoints and special patrols around sensitive locations, according to coalition-run Iraqi television.

Elsewhere, three soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were slightly wounded Wednesday when up to seven roadside bombs exploded near their convoy in the northern city of Mosul, the military said.

And in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, witnesses said an explosive device intended for U.S. troops detonated Wednesday as a civilian car was passing by, seriously injuring the driver.

Col. William Darley, a U.S. military spokesman, said American forces are now suffering an average of 33 attacks a day. That marked a dramatic escalation over the average of 12 daily attacks reported in mid-July.

By late September, occupation authorities reported the average ranged from "the low teens to the mid-20s" over the previous two months. On Oct. 23, the U.S. military said attacks averaged 26 daily between Oct. 8 and Oct. 22.

These include including mortars, small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned as "brutal and wicked" a wave of attacks that killed dozens of people this week.

"These attacks are the work of evil people who do not wish to see a stable and prosperous Iraq," Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday. "We shall continue to do everything we can to thwart them and reconstruct the country."

The violence escalated this week starting with the rocket attack Sunday against the Al-Rasheed Hotel, which killed an American officer and wounded 18 other people.

On Monday, car bombers devastated the Red Cross headquarters and three police stations, killing about three dozen people and wounding more than 200 -- the bloodiest day in Baghdad since the start of the U.S. occupation.

The attacks, which coincided with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, cast doubt on assertions by the Bush administration that conditions in Iraq are steadily improving.

Associated Press writers Katarina Kratovac in Tikrit and Mariam Fam in Mosul contributed to this report.

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