BAGHDAD, Iraq—As military analysts see it, Wednesday's bloody car-bombing of a downtown Baghdad hotel is the latest in a surge of attacks on so-called "soft targets" in the shadowy war to disrupt Iraq's march toward pro-U.S. democracy.
Iraqi and coalition officials are bracing for even more carnage in further attacks on soft targets—poorly protected civilians—around Saturday's first anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein and possibly continuing through April 9, a year since coalition forces stormed Baghdad.
The idea, as some U.S. and Iraqi officials see it, is to wreak enough havoc to scare off the foreigners whose capital and engagement are key to Iraq opening itself to the West after a decades of isolation.
Under this theory, no civilian here is immune from attack. Not the American Baptist missionaries who were ambushed by gunmen Monday night in the heavily Christian northern city of Mosul. Not the European contractors killed in the south Tuesday while working on a water supply project.
And not the journalists, businessmen and humanitarian workers who were guests at the Lebanon Mountain Hotel, part of the influx of outsiders who have poured into Iraq since Baghdad fell.
A cunning tactic, it does create divisions. Saddam Hussein's Baath party held this country of religious and tribal rivalries together through an ideology that painted the outsider as the greatest threat.
Just hours before the car bomb blew Wednesday, in fact, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of coalition operations here, put it this way:
"It would not surprise us if the terrorists are in a last desperate attempt at trying to create factionalism, trying to create some fissures inside the society, are intentionally targeting civilians," he said, specifically citing two sisters who were gunned down, presumably for earning dollars by washing U.S. soldiers' uniforms for cash in the southern Iraq city of Basra.
"It deeply saddens us," the general said, "but it certainly does demonstrate, quite frankly, how low they will go to try to achieve their purposes."
But it is only a theory because, even more than other Middle Eastern militant groups, these killers operate in the shadows. They don't issue the claims of responsibility that most movements routinely fax to Arabic-speaking news bureaus. So people in this long insular country are left to wonder who is behind the attacks.
The scene at the Baghdad hotel bombing site Wednesday night suggested the bombers were sowing suspicion, just as they intended to do.
U.S. troops rushed to help pull survivors from the still-burning cement-block building, only to be jeered by some Iraqis who cried that an American missile had somehow gone astray, as they sometimes did during the war.
Insurgents clearly have shifted their strategy over the past year.
In the uncertain, early months of the invasion, the ostensibly pro-Saddam fedayeen and other anti-American Arab forces aimed most of their attacks at coalition troops in a presumed campaign to exact enough bloody casualties to persuade the Americans to abandon their mission and go home.
Now, the insurgents continue to kill U.S. troops in ambushes and with roadside bombs triggered by remote control beneath passing patrols.
But in a year these "hard targets" have learned to protect themselves better from the large-scale casualties caused by car bombs like the one that blew in Baghdad Wednesday night. U.S. troops and other coalition forces have built better barriers around their encampments, in some instances pulling them to the outskirts of risky urban areas. They have reduced their patrols and hardened their Humvees.
So the insurgents have turned to killing civilians—the so-called "soft targets"—such as foreign businessmen, journalists, translators and small entrepreneurs who live beyond the U.S. military barriers and have fewer resources to protect themselves.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040317 USIRAQ BLAST