TIKRIT, Iraq, June 9 -- Attacks on American troops are growing in frequency and sophistication across central Iraq, a crescent of discontent and hostility where many Iraqis remain opposed to the U.S. occupation of their country.
Almost every day, well-organized groups of assailants using assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars are ambushing U.S. Army convoys, patrols, checkpoints, garrisons and public offices used by troops to interact with the civilian population.
n response, U.S. forces are trying to crush resistance through house-to-house searches, arms seizures and deadly force, in some cases with fatal consequences for innocent bystanders.
PREMATURE CELEBRATING IN TIKRIT
US marines wave flags in the city of Tikrit after taking control of most of the city. (AFP/File/Joseph Barraka)
Army commanders say the attacks are locally planned and attribute them to "remnants" of the Baath Party and other supporters of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. While they describe the attacks as the work of a single resistance group, they suspect that some armed fighters may be moving from city to city, looking for vulnerable targets and pressuring the local population to secretly support their activities. They say these fighters appear to be staging hit-and-run actions designed to kill American troops, but not engage them in firefights.
The persistence and evolution of tactics is giving the violence the appearance of a guerrilla movement. In the last two weeks, eight U.S. soldiers have been killed and another 25 wounded, according to Pentagon announcements and news reports. The numbers of Iraqis killed, wounded or apprehended number in the dozens.
On Sunday night, a U.S. soldier was killed at a checkpoint near the Syrian border. The assailants first requested medical assistance for a passenger in their vehicle and when the soldiers approached, they fired handguns at them. U.S. troops returned fire, killing one and capturing another. At least one assailant fled in the vehicle, according to the U.S. Central Command. The soldier has not been identified.
The hostility to U.S. forces appears to be most intense in a region west and north of Baghdad dominated by Sunni Muslims who were at the core of the Baath Party and Hussein's government. Cities such as Baqubah, Samarra, Habaniyah, Khaldiya, Fallujah and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, have been particularly dangerous for U.S. troops.
"These are military-type attacks," said Capt. John Ives, of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. "It could get worse before it gets better. It's a matter that some people want us dead. We're just going to have to take them out." The division was recently dispatched from Baghdad to reinforce the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in west central Iraq.
In Tikrit early Saturday morning, U.S. troops were besieged at the central building used by the military to deal with Iraqi civilians seeking help. Army officers today recalled the assault as sophisticated and organized. "They were definitely not some kids with pistols. It was well planned and well executed. They knew where we were in the building. They had done reconnaissance," said Army Maj. George Pitt in Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad.
The Tikrit attack began with small-arms fire. "They were probing us, seeing how we reacted. That's how we would have done it," Staff Sgt. Jaime Carrasco said. "They knew how to use their weapons."
Shots were fired from protected positions on rooftops across the street and from behind a berm. U.S. troops later found spent shells, rucksacks and food -- signaling patience and preparation, Carrasco said.
Then, suddenly, the small-arms fire died down, and the U.S.-occupied building was hit by at least six to eight volleys of rocket-propelled grenades.
"Look at the shot groups," Carrasco said, pointing to the pocked mortar and gaping holes on the third floor of the building. "See how tight they are."
The rocket-propelled grenades hit their targets within four feet of each other. One barely missed a window. Another projectile penetrated a metal door, flew across the room and exited through the back wall. The grenades were fragmentary devices, designed to spew shrapnel upon impact. Only one did, and the wall below impact was flecked with deep gouges. "This is very, very lucky thing," Carrasco said. "Somebody was looking out for us."
Carrasco said he believed the assailants knew that this was the room where the infantry soldiers guarding the building at night slept or relaxed on their breaks. After the rocket-propelled grenades were fired, the U.S. forces returned fire.
During the fight, a group of military police three houses away were also attacked. "This was coordinated. Two locations. Same time," Carrasco said. Five soldiers were wounded, one seriously. A military policeman was shot in the face outside the building and drowned in his own blood; medics performed an emergency tracheotomy, but he died. The Pentagon has identified him as Pvt. Jesse M. Halling, 19, of Indianapolis, of the 401st Military Police Company, based at Ft. Hood, Tex. Pitt said military investigators do not know who attacked them or why.
The Tikrit attack took place where the military does its community outreach, taking complaints about stolen vehicles, looting, or the fate of men missing or arrested, and answering questions from pensioners or former state employees about when they might get paid again. The troops in the building say they believe that some Iraqis who come seeking help during the day are actually looking for targets to hit at night. "You can't tell friend from foe," one soldier said.
Several soldiers said the increased hostilities had made their job of winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis more difficult, and after the attack, the Tikrit building was fortified with sandbags and heavier weapons.
On Sunday night, U.S. patrols arrested two men outside the building who were carrying binoculars and rough map and outline of the site and its possible vulnerabilities, Pitt said.
In Fallujah, there are also signs of increasing organization and tactical efficiency of resisters, U.S. officers said. Some groups have begun to give themselves names -- things as simple as "The Fighters," according to graffiti on the walls in the town. Gunmen are using spotters placed along the roads or in mosques to signal the arrival of U.S. troops, Capt. Ives said. Once, someone cut electricity to a neighborhood as U.S. forces were approaching.
In Fallujah early today, a convoy of seven U.S. Humvees was attacked as the vehicles moved down Old Cinema Street, a main commercial thoroughfare. The vehicles were ambushed by rifle fire from four sides. The Americans fired at buildings on both sides of the street, chipping concrete off the facades. No one on either side was injured.
There have been attacks on U.S. forces every night in Fallujah since Wednesday, when Iraqis fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a group of soldiers positioned at a ruined police station, killing one. The assailants escaped. Fallujah has been embittered since U.S. forces killed 17 Iraqis during two separate protests in April. U.S. authorities said the soldiers fired in self-defense.
"We've got to be on our toes all the time. Eyes open, scanning the buildings. It's not tanks and infantry we're fighting anymore. It's something more hidden," said Staff Sgt. Fred Frisbie, a military policeman.
"There's some speculation that Iraqis were disoriented when we first arrived, but now some are getting together to organize and attack," added Sgt. Conrad Sheley, who belongs to the 66th Military Intelligence Group of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "We have to get it under control."
In Fallujah, U.S. forces are rounding up suspected troublemakers, searching houses for weapons, and patrolling every neighborhood. Closing down Fallujah's arms market, a longtime center of business in the desert town, is a priority, Ives said.
On Sunday, U.S. troops chased a suspected arms-parts dealer named Ahmed Junabi into the cluttered and crowded weapons market area. U.S. officials say that Junabi pulled out a pistol as he was fleeing the Americans in an old Iraqi army car, which he had evidently looted. The troops shot and killed him. Iraqi witnesses said he was unarmed.
The incident enraged merchants in the bazaar. They had grown accustomed -- even under Hussein's rule -- to smuggling and selling weapons with impunity. "We never saw a policeman in here before. Now the Americans send in their soldiers," said Hassan Ali Azobayi, a butcher.
Mohammed Dulaimi, a self-described engineer, led a crowd in chants of "vengeance" and "We want Saddam." When a German reporter arrived, they chanted, "Hitler, Hitler." One protester displayed a small bullet and insisted it was uranium.
"You will see. We will avenge this killing. For every Iraqi dead, an American must die," said Dulaimi.
Some of the inhabitants of Fallujah's Old Cinema Street said that today's ambush was a response to the market killing. "We don't accept that the Americans roam our streets," declared Khalaf Jumeili, who said he was an Islamic scholar.
Errors are compounding the problems for the U.S. forces in Fallujah. On Saturday night, U.S. soldiers guarding the mayor's offices shot and killed a member of the mayor's own security detachment. The victim, Sami Montasir, along with another guard, ran from the building to pursue two thieves they saw loading rubber tubing onto a truck in a construction area. When the security guards fired on the suspects, the Americans fired on them. The second guard, Omar Menah, suffered a leg wound. "These men were doing what they were supposed to do. They weren't shooting anywhere near the Americans," said Lt. Ayad Abel, head of the city hall Iraqi security unit. "The Americans are usually cool, but they have to be more careful."
The day before, a convoy of U.S. troops came under fire near the Maadithi mosque and cemetery, located near Fallujah's railway station, U.S. officers said. They fired into the cemetery and on adjacent roads. One Iraqi died -- a man named Kudair, according to officials in the mayor's office. Kudair was repairing his truck on a side street.
Many residents of Fallujah are demanding that U.S. forces withdraw from the town. The U.S. response has been to step up patrols. Almost every day, motorists with cars battered by errant tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles show up at city hall to ask for compensation. Maj. Peter Buotte, with the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, said he instructs the Iraqis to fill out a form, which he tells them will eventually result in payment for the damage.
Williams reported from Fallujah and Ramadi.
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