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Iraq town blames U.S. troops for fatal explosion at cadet graduation

RAMADI, Iraq—Mohammad Jassim grew up wanting nothing more than to be a policeman, to wear the uniform and the gun.

"It was my dream," Jassim said.

That dream nearly died on Saturday. Jassim, 18, was one of more than 60 police cadets injured in a bomb explosion that killed nine people. The bomb also produced an explosion of anger against the United States in Ramadi, the scene of repeated fighting and attacks in recent weeks.

The bomb was a homemade concoction of dynamite and metal shards apparently stuffed in a rice bag and placed in a light pole. It was detonated just as Jassim and his fellow American-trained recruits exited their graduation ceremony, shoulder-to-shoulder in formation, on the way to get their first assignments at the regional governor's office.

On Sunday, Jassim lay in a hospital gurney, the left side of his body torn with shrapnel wounds. Barely able to speak, he said, "I don't know why someone would do this."

His family members, crowded in a hall at Ramadi General Hospital, were less uncertain. They said, screaming and through gritted teeth, that the U.S. Army planted the bomb.

"The Americans did this," said Jassim's brother, Hamid. "They did it to make confusion, to make us fight each other."

Hamid Jassim's opinion was shared by almost everyone interviewed in Ramadi on Sunday.

That a theory so far-fetched could win the minds of so many in this small city is yet another indication of how Iraq is spinning out of control and into chaos. At least 28 coalition soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since the end of major combat operations on May 1

Ramadi, a small city, is about 70 miles west of Baghdad and on the southern axis of an area known as the "Sunni Triangle."

The Triangle is predominantly Sunni Muslim—the religion of Saddam Hussein—and home to many former members of Saddam's Baath Party. The U.S. has launched two major operations in the area during the past month, arresting hundreds and collecting caches of AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and a host of other weapons. The violence, though, continued to escalate.

One Army official said investigators are still trying to piece together who was behind the bombing Saturday.

"We have no idea who's to blame," said Staff Sgt. Douglas Salewsky, a spokesman for the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. "Whether they're organized or not, we don't know as of right now. We don't have a clue."

In Ramadi, the explosion was the second in a week. Last Thursday, an explosive device was set off between two Humvees, injuring six soldiers of the 3rd Armored Calvary, the main U.S. presence in town.

The base the 3rd ACR soldiers live on, the grounds of a palace formerly owned by Saddam Hussein, is attacked regularly:

_July 1, five mortars hit the ACR camp. One soldier was wounded. That same day, a Rocket Propelled Grenade exploded near the rear gate.

_July 2, five more mortar rounds pounded the base, injuring no one. Half an hour later, another mortar came flying through the air.

_July 5, four mortar rounds hit, making it 16 in just three days.

In between all of those attacks, the governor's office downtown was turned into a battlefield. Earlier this week, on July 3, at least one man across the street from the office opened fire, spraying the wall with bullets. A motorcycle then pulled up, and the driver lobbed eight grenades over the compound wall. A few minutes later, three mortar rounds exploded.

There were no public reports of casualties at the governor's office.

On the third floor of the Ramadi hospital, where the rooms Sunday were crammed with the injured, rows of silent women in black lined the walls. Men yelled, now and then, that America had many, many deaths coming its way.

Outside the hospital, too, most seemed to think that the U.S. was behind the explosion. They pointed to the fact that soldiers did not accompany the police recruits as usual, and the recruits were moved in formation, rather than leave individually as usual.

Army officials said that since recruits had just graduated, it was time for them to march on their own.

The commander of the 3rd Armored Calvary in Ramadi stressed that the attack was not an example of guerilla warfare.

"Guerilla warfare is where the population supports the guerillas. That is not the case here," said Col. David Teeples. "We have a good relationship with the people."

Most people on the streets of Ramadi Sunday, though, said they loath the U.S. presence. The few exceptions included the regional governor and Ramadi police chief, both of whom are supported, and guarded, by U.S. military.

But Mohammad Kalif, a primary school principal, said "we will kill (the Americans) because the Christians and the Jews cannot control an Islamic land we will Jihad against the Americans."

Sufian Daham, one of the cadets who graduated Saturday, said, "the Americans did (the bombing.) They are making war on Islam." Hasan Asaf, a bricklayer, said of U.S. troops that "they want problems between the people so they can just sit back and watch we don't want them here."

Mohammad Kamis, another one of the police cadets, said "there's no question the Americans made (the bombing), they did it so we will start fighting each other." Khalid Jamil Kurdi, who worked in the local glass factory before the war, said "because some people have attacked the Americans, they are turning off our water and electricity we'll have Jihad, it is inevitable."

At every turn in Ramadi, there were groups of men seething with anger, yelling that they would have revenge on U.S. troops.

Sighing, Teeples said that he thought Baath-party loyalists were probably behind the recent attacks. He said that Iraqis detained for violence against troops admitted they'd been paid to shoot soldiers.

The Baathists, Teeples said, aren't able to get much sympathy for the downfall of Saddam Hussein's political party, so they've found a new, troubling strategy.

"They tell them we're attacking Islam," Teeples said.

Judging by the talk in Ramadi the strategy is working.

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

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

Iraq

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