RAWAH, Iraq—Hassan Ibrahim walked the narrow space between the fresh graves and shook his head. There were 78, some of them packed with more than one body, with rocks as markers. The air stank of death. The names of the dead were written on paper and folded into soda bottles stuck in the ground.
"This town was safe before the Americans come here and made a lot of blood," said Ibrahim. "Is this the democracy they were talking about?"
The graves were all that remained after U.S. forces struck a suspected terrorist training camp five and a half miles from town Thursday, raking the earth with missiles and machine-gun fire.
Although the attack was a military success, it threatens to create thousands of new enemies in this small farming city on the banks of the Euphrates River. In a place where everyone knows each other and the streets are quiet after dark, the number of corpses and the havoc of battle could have unintended consequences.
"If I get a chance, I would shoot an American, because they are now my enemies," said Marwan Alrawi, a member of a family that owns farmland throughout the area. "Before this, 1 of 10,000 Rawah citizens would fight the Americans. Now, more than half would."
The backlash highlights the increasingly difficult task of crushing Baath Party loyalists and what U.S. officials say are a growing number of foreign fighters while also winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis.
The raid was part of some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq since President Bush declared the war over on May 1. Most of it has taken place in the "Triangle," an area that extends from Baghdad, Iraq, in the east to Tikrit, Iraq, in the north, and then west almost to Syria. The area, made up predominately of conservative Sunni Muslims, has been a recent flashpoint of attacks on American troops.
Attacks continued early Friday when a group of Iraqi gunmen ambushed a column of tanks from the Army's 4th Infantry Division with rocket-propelled grenades near Balad, Iraq, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters returned fire, killing 27 attackers, spokesmen at the U.S. Central Command said.
Central Command officials said the U.S. military offensives in recent days are part of "a continued effort to eradicate Baath party loyalists, paramilitary groups and other subversive elements."
Speaking to Pentagon reporters in a teleconference on Friday, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top allied commander in Iraq, declined to say much about the Rawah raid. He did not say who the suspected terrorists were.
"I will simply tell you that it was a camp area that was confirmed with bad guys and specifically who the bad guys are will be determined as we exploit the site," he said.
While many in Rawah, about four hours west of Baghdad, said the people killed were fighters from Syria and Iraq, the death toll outraged them.
Villagers said nearly 80 fighters were killed in the raid. Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said the number of casualties couldn't be confirmed.
"The command has always stayed away from specific body counts," Lowell said. "The bottom line is if we're in that area and we've put this type of combat power there, then it's obvious there's some significant concentration of enemy there."
A Pentagon official said information remains sketchy about the nationalities of those killed in the raid. "Some Syrians were among them," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But there were other nationalities as well."
Saleh said rumors in the small, close-knit community say that the men at the desert camp were training to be fighters of some sort. They met small groups of the men when they came to market for food.
"They were from Syria, Jordan, and one was even from France," said Mohammad Mohammad, a man sitting next to Saleh. "Of course they were going to kill the Americans, everyone hates the Americans."
In Rawah yesterday, the only smiles were on the faces of people who showed a visitor the wreckage of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter, apparently one from the 101st Airborne Division that the military announced was shot down Thursday by "irregular forces." The two U.S. crewmen were not hurt in the crash, and were rescued.
Scraps of the helicopter were jumbled in a dirt pile pushed by American bulldozers that left town on Army trucks.
The same bulldozers, residents said, pushed dirt and rocks over the bodies of five men near the helicopter crash site. There were tracks leading to the location they named, and pieces of clothing and the smell of dead bodies in and around the recently moved rocks.
The men buried by the bulldozers had been in a truck that sat nearby, burned-out and full of holes. It was the men in the truck who shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, said Mahdi Saleh, a local electrician who, awakened by the firefight, drove out to a hilltop that looked toward the action.
From a purely military standpoint, the operation was an unqualified success. McKiernan indicated that his troops had the element of surprise. American jets bombed the camp before special operations forces and troops from the 101st Airborne went in, according to Pentagon officials.
"We struck it very lethally, and we're exploiting whatever intelligence value we can get from that site for future operations," McKiernan said.
The camp that was hit in Rawah sat on a small strip of land between a row of reeds in a creek bed and a cliff in the middle of the desert, reachable only by following the small piles of rocks left by locals as sign posts.
In what remained of it, there was a man's thumb sitting on the ground beside a charred straw mat. Several yards away, there was an arm, cut off slightly above the elbow, lying not far from the charred remains of a Koran. At least six broken pieces of wooden boards marked graves for body parts that did not make it to the graveyard.
Locals said that after the fighting was done, they followed the smell of smoke, and their memory of where the bright flashes had been, and loaded dozens of charred bodies—"they were like burned meat," one man said—into the backs of pickup trucks.
In the back of one of the trucks were Adidas and Nike running shoes.
Among the items at the camp were empty boxes that once held Soviet AK-47 rifle ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades. There were mounds of spent bullets, as well as backpacks, the same ones used by the Iraqi military, with tube-shaped pockets used to carry RPG rounds.
A few people maintained that the men at the camp were either Iraqis who meant only to protect the townspeople from looters, or men who were using the hillside as a rock quarry.
"The Americans are worse than Saddam: He killed with a gun, the Americans kill with a bomb," said Ahmed Alsalam, a local farmer. "They have made their own mass grave here."
(Lasseter reported from Rawah. Brown reported from Washington. Dana Hull contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.