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War within a war taking place for hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis

AL SHUAIBA VILLAGE, Iraq—The police station here, a symbol of Saddam Hussein's iron grip, was set to house a U.S.-funded medical clinic to help Iraqis. But shortly after the U.S. military gave the go-ahead, something mysterious happened.

The building burned down. In a community that still believes Saddam Hussein's eyes are everywhere, many residents saw it as a sign that die-hard Baath Party loyalists remain determined to sabotage U.S. plans to create a new Iraq.

"There are many jealous and angry people who want to create chaos," said Mohammed Jashim Shibl, 40, an oil refinery worker, as he watched flames engulf the police station Thursday.

In towns across southern Iraq, a war within a war is taking place for the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis. Baath Party loyalists are intimidating, even murdering, Iraqis who denounce Saddam or befriend coalition soldiers. They've posted bounties for the heads of coalition soldiers.

British forces, in turn, have made it a priority to stage commando raids into towns and villages, arresting Baath Party officials to destroy their lingering influence. Many of the operations result from tips by ordinary Iraqis who want to ensure that the old regime in southern Iraq doesn't rise up again—or continue to wield power behind the scenes.

"We are still on the frontlines of a war," said Major Paul Nanson who leads the British First Fusiliers Y Company.

Last week, an Iraqi teenager targeted Nanson's base in this dusty village where sand-yellow British tanks are parked in front of the former Baath Party headquarters.

Baath loyalists had apparently promised the teenager a large reward to kill a soldier, said Nanson. But five soldiers subdued him after villagers alerted the regiment.

"In the rear, the local Baathists and their myriad intelligence and security networks are intimidating people with a carrot-stick approach," said Capt. Richard Coates of the First Fusiliers Battle Group.

"The carrot is money for attacks on coalition forces. The stick is if they don't listen, they threaten to take family members hostages. So the guy goes out and finds an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) on the ground and fires it at us."

The bounty for a successful attack on a convoy is 15,000 dinars (about $4)—the equivalent of 15 bottles of water. It's 25,000 dinars (about $7) for each destroyed coalition vehicle. For an assassination, it can run into the hundreds of thousands, according to British commanders and local villagers.

So far, the Baath loyalists have had more success targeting ordinary Iraqis. In Safwan, just north of the Kuwaiti border, several Iraqis were killed after denouncing Saddam publicly, according to British officials.

The victims included one man who reportedly threw a shoe at a ripped-down mural of Saddam.

Last week, British commandos swept into Safwan and nabbed 15 suspected senior Baath officials. They found an arms cache and propaganda literature urging Iraqis to rise up against coalition forces and Western journalists, said British soldiers.

"There are still a few hundred Baathis in Safwan," said Omar Dawood al Failakawi, a British army interpreter who works with Iraqi informants. "A lot of people are forced to join the Baath Party. If they say no, they'll be wasted. They try to survive."

Many of the Baath Party loyalists know little else. They are selected while still in high school and move up the party ladder purely on their loyalty to Saddam.

"Now they are fighting for themselves—not Saddam," said Ayat Jabar, 28, a former Baath Party stalwart and soldier who recently deserted the Iraqi army. "This is because Saddam has given them the impression that foreign troops will kill all Baathis."

In the village of Al Shuaiba, the Baath Party controlled lives in a Stalinist way. The main switch to the village's electricity grid was inside the party's headquarters.

The local Baath boss would be given a brand new car and a few Kalashnikov rifles. For every traitor he reported, he got 25,000 dinars, said villagers.

Today, the British forces are based inside the Baath Party's office. It's a visible message to convince the villagers that the Baathists have no more authority.

Still, villagers can be easily intimidated by Saddam's supporters. Many have relatives in Basra, where more than 1,000 loyalists are putting up stiff resistance to British forces on the edge of the city.

Fear of Baathists is palpable. Many villagers worry that they will be reported to Baghdad just for talking or giving food to British soldiers.

"The day the soldiers leave, there will be a lot of executions right away," said one man as he watched a yellow British Warrior tank pull out of his village.

Scrawled on the mud wall of the British base was this promise: "Iraq will stay as one to fight evil and oppression of the American Zionist."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BAATH