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Attacks illustrates rising tensions as U.S. troops try to keep peace

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Liberation in Iraq is beginning to look more and more like occupation as tempers flare, tensions rise and explosions rattle the streets of Baghdad.

A surge in attacks on the U.S. military that has left four soldiers dead and 13 wounded has coincided with a rise in confrontations between American forces and Iraqis who are frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding their nation.

In recent days, a U.S. soldier was knocked to the ground in Baghdad by an irate woman swinging an empty propane tank at a refueling station, a 10-year-old boy was wounded when he got caught in the middle of a gun battle in a busy market, and an Iraqi trying to steal fuel from a gas station near Nasiriyah tossed a hand grenade at military police officers that didn't explode.

The spate of attacks underscores the dangers that American soldiers face as they struggle to keep the peace and rebuild Iraq.

"The level of anxiety continues to rise," said Capt. Stacey Corn of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Polk, La., who was working in Sadr City, the toughest slum in Baghdad.

L. Paul Bremer, the American heading up the reconstruction project, proclaimed the start of a new chapter for the postwar nation Monday. With thousands of troops hitting the streets of Baghdad to curb crime, more electrical power reaching residents outside the capital, police returning to work and tons of fuel pouring into the nation, Bremer spoke optimistically about focusing now on rebuilding Iraq's economy.

Putting more soldiers on the streets has helped keep a lid on crime, but it also has put them in greater danger as they launch more foot patrols, set up scores of traffic checkpoints and move to take thousands of stolen guns off the streets.

The Iraqi people are impatient, said Fadhel Abdullah, a 21-year-old political science student at Baghdad University, who warned that Americans could face a revolution if they stay too long.

The Americans are frustrated as well. On a recent morning, Capt. Kris Lagor, a state trooper from Hartford, Conn., fumed as he directed traffic around the covered body of an elderly man who had been shot to death on a Baghdad bridge. Lagor's military police unit waited more than two hours for Iraqi police to turn up and then watched them drive off again without doing much of anything.

"They have no intention of being cops, and the Iraqi people hate them," Lagor said. "We're protecting the mafia out here. That's the real deal, and the bottom line is that Joes like me are getting snuffed out here."

Soldiers say it is difficult to distinguish between frustrated citizens and hostile forces.

On Monday, attackers using an explosive destroyed a Humvee on a busy highway outside Baghdad, wounding four U.S. soldiers, one of whom died later. The Defense Department identified the dead soldier Wednesday as Pfc. Jeremiah D. Smith, 25, of Odessa, Mo. Smith was with 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, from Fort Riley, Kan.

In northern Iraq, one soldier was killed and a second was wounded Monday when their convoy was hit by an ambush.

Early Tuesday in the hostile city of Fallujah, two soldiers were killed and nine others were wounded when their checkpoint came under attack. The Defense Department identified one of the dead soldiers Wednesday as Sgt. Thomas F. Broomhead, 34, of Cannon City, Colo. Broomhead was assigned to 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armor Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Carson, Colo.

"This is a very tough mission for us," said Capt. Eric Strong as he tried to prevent chaos from overtaking a propane distribution center in Sadr City. "We're trying to help the 3,000 Iraqis here, but at the same time there are people out there that might want to hurt you."

U.S. Army intelligence officers have kept note of an increasing number of incidents aimed at soldiers. A rocket-propelled grenade was launched at an Iraqi police station where Army military police were working. No one was injured. In a separate incident, a grenade tossed from a truck toward another police station slightly injured two soldiers.

Some of the frustration Iraqis feel comes from ordinary encounters with the American military. The soldiers sometimes block traffic to let Humvees and military trucks pass. U.S. military vehicles are large, pushy and not suited to Baghdad's crowded streets. A military vehicle ripped off a side mirror from a car recently and just kept going, its occupants making no effort to pay for the damage.

Some soldiers report positive relations with Iraqis. Military police vehicles are constantly being flagged down by civilians who want to point out where the latest "Ali Baba"—slang for thief—is hiding.

In the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk, the peaceful selection of an interim mayor Wednesday was a victory for U.S. officials, who last week struggled to keep the peace among ethnic factions and prevent an election boycott. In the end, ethnic Turks and Arabs dropped a protest and agreed to take part.

A council selected by an independent body elected a Kurdish lawyer, Abdul Rahman Mustafa. An ethnic Turk was named speaker of the city council.

"I suffered a lot under the Baath Party for my independence," Mustafa said. He said he wouldn't seek retribution for injustices he suffered under the old regime.

Wasfi al Assi, a prominent Arab businessman and council member, said Arabs were concerned that Kurds now had the upper hand. The region around Kirkuk controls more than half of the country's oil and water. Disputes over resources and land are the source of much of the tension in the area.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents John Sullivan in Kirkuk and Natalie Pompilio in Baghdad contributed to this report.)

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

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