BAGHDAD, Iraq—A group of grizzled Iraqi truck drivers watched Sunday as their soot-stained friends carted off debris after the latest in a string of liquor-store bombings.
The explosion in Baghdad scattered broken beer bottles across the street and left the men to wonder "what kind of animals" would plant a bomb in a three-story building where children played on balconies. One thing was certain, they decided: The attackers weren't Iraqis.
"No one destroys his own house," Ali Hussein said.
"Iraqis don't kill," Saeed Abbas added.
"They must be Syrians or Jordanians or something," Hassan Sayid chimed in.
Iraqis who can't bear to acknowledge that their countrymen probably are committing most of the atrocities are quick to blame the carnage on foreign terrorists. Although U.S. military officials say foreigners are only a fraction of the thousands-strong insurgency that's carrying out the attacks, a weary public shamed by Iraq's bloodthirsty image is issuing a collective denial—helped by top leaders and neighborhood gossip.
By and large, American military officials said, the rebels are a homegrown mix of Islamic extremists, anti-occupation nationalists and members of Saddam Hussein's former regime. Hard-core foreign extremists such as those loyal to suspected Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi number only in the hundreds, according to military reports.
"It's part of your natural psyche to think that one of your family members could never do something so bad," said Maj. Carolyn Dysart, a U.S. military spokeswoman. "But it's turning out to be true."
Even President Ghazi al Yawer has expressed doubt that his constituents are the likely suspects in attacks on Iraqi police stations, American troops and foreign contractors. In a recent interview, he was asked about a coordinated insurgent assault in his hometown of Mosul that killed 62 people and wounded more than 200.
"My only comfort was that these people cannot be Iraqis," the president said.
Iraq's new national security adviser, Muwaffak al Rubaiae, conceded Sunday that former Saddam-regime loyalists and other Iraqis are probably behind a lion's share of the violence. But "it's difficult," he said, and quickly brought up Zarqawi's ilk.
"You can't dispute the overwhelming evidence that there are several hundred of these people around," Rubaiae said.
The hodgepodge of insurgents that once was loosely organized now is showing signs of divisions. In the past week, two videos were released in which masked gunmen claiming to be "the real Iraqi resistance" played off public contempt for Zarqawi by denouncing his alleged attacks and threatening to kill him unless he leaves the country.
"During battle times, there was full cooperation between Iraqi and foreign resistance," said Salman al Jumaili, a political analyst at Baghdad University. "But the percentage of foreigners in Fallujah now is small. Still, there are fighters who dress like Iraqis and speak like Iraqis, but they're not Iraqi. The real Iraqi resistance has started to differentiate itself."
While they may have growing differences over targets and tactics, Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists appear to remain united in their desire to drive the United States out of Iraq and topple the country's American-backed interim government, U.S. officials warned.
Dysart said the large-scale bombings that killed scores of civilians bore the hallmarks of foreign terrorists. But Iraqis are thought to be behind most attacks on the military and Iraqi security forces.
Professor Jumaili examined medical records and military reports for a study he conducted on insurgents who were killed in combat during the U.S. Marine siege of the volatile city of Fallujah in April. The vast majority of dead fighters were Iraqis, and not just Muslims. The professor also found Christians, Turkmens and members of other Iraqi minorities.
Several Baghdad residents said they could live with the idea that Iraqi insurgents attacked U.S. troops. But they staunchly disagreed that Iraqis have the heart to target their countrymen. Those who dared, they said, weren't true Iraqis in the first place.
"No honorable Iraqi would kill an Iraqi policeman or blow himself up," said Mahmoud Amjad, 25, who works at a currency exchange.
"True Iraqis wouldn't do such a thing," agreed Ahmed Abbas, 56, who sells roasted nuts. "The saboteurs who came to destroy this country are Yemeni, Egyptian, Syrian and Moroccan."
The truck drivers said they turned up the volume and inched closer to their TV sets when satellite channels broadcast now-familiar tapes of masked gunmen threatening to behead foreign hostages. They listen closely to the accents. Even when guerrillas speak in the distinctive guttural Arabic of Iraq, the drivers aren't satisfied.
"Anyone can fake an accent," Abbas said, with a dismissive flick of his hand.
"Watch," Hussein commanded, wrapping a checkered scarf around his head, guerrilla-style. "Ha! I covered my face. Now, can you say for sure that I'm Iraqi?"
"You can deny everything until you're blue in the face even though the truth tells you something different," Dysart said.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+denial