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Military acknowledges attacks on U.S. troops part of guerrilla war

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S. military acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that American troops in Iraq were facing a guerrilla war, as a string of attacks in Baghdad left one U.S. soldier dead and at least five wounded. An American C-130 cargo plane landing in Baghdad also was attacked by a surface-to-air missile that missed its target.

The deaths came as American military officials braced for more attacks Thursday, the anniversary of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party's July 17, 1968, revolution, and the deposed dictator's biggest holiday.

In Washington, Army Gen. John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command, said American-led forces were facing "a classical guerrilla-type campaign" by former members and supporters of Saddam's ousted regime and by Islamic terrorists.

"It's low intensity but it's war, however you describe it," Abizaid said.

It was the first time that a senior U.S. commander had acknowledged that daily attacks on American troops nearly three months after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations were more than uncoordinated strikes by disparate groups of former regime members, criminals or foreigners. At least 33 U.S. soldiers have died in those attacks.

Abizaid, who will go to Iraq shortly to confer with American commanders, said attacks were being conducted by hard-line remnants of the Baath Party, security forces and paramilitary units that are "organized at the regional level in cellular structure."

"We're seeing a cellular organization of six to eight people armed with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), machine guns, et cetera, attacking us at, sometimes, times and places of their choosing. And at other times we attack them at times and places of our choosing," he said. "They are receiving financial help from probably regional-level leaders."

In other violence Wednesday, assassins gunned down the mayor of a small town west of Baghdad who had cooperated with U.S. forces. A son of the mayor also died in the attack.

Hadithah Mayor Mohammad Nayil Assaf was shot at about 2:30 p.m. His body was taken to the coroner's office in Ramadi, and an investigation was under way, according to a statement by the military. Hadithah is about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.

A U.S. Army spokesman said Wednesday, "We have no idea of who killed the mayor." Many Iraqis will interpret Assaf's death as a warning against working with American troops.

The first Baghdad attack on the U.S. military came at about 9:55 a.m. Wednesday in the western part of the city. An explosion that U.S. Central Command said was due to a rocket-propelled grenade sent one flatbed truck in an Army convoy skidding off the road as the truck behind it crashed into it.

One soldier was killed and three others wounded. Truck parts were scattered across the road Wednesday afternoon. It was the same stretch of highway where another soldier was killed and 10 injured Monday in a rocket-propelled grenade and AK-47 assault.

Maj. Michael Pappal of the 1st Armored Division was looking at the truck wreckage Wednesday.

"I have guys who get shot at every night—small arms, RPG or mortars," Pappal said. "It seems like maybe the attacks are picking up, but it's hard to tell."

The second incident Wednesday was an apparent rocket-propelled grenade strike on an Army Humvee in south Baghdad. The military closed the road, but a badly damaged Humvee was visible. Witnesses said they thought it was a rocket-propelled grenade attack and that it took place about 3:30 p.m.

Kasser Hussein, who runs a nearby cigarette stand, said he "heard a huge sound, then I saw smoke and pieces of the vehicle flew through the air."

The third attack of the day was in front of a bank near central Baghdad. A man drove by, witnesses said, and threw a grenade at a group of soldiers outside. One soldier was wounded in the leg. Five Iraqis also were hit, among them a 12-year-old boy who died.

Abizaid said some attacks in Iraq were being launched by terrorist groups, including Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist organization with ties to al-Qaida.

Ansar's base in the Kurdish-controlled area of northeastern Iraq was hit hard at the outset of the war, but Abizaid said the group is "re-forming."

He insisted, however, that U.S. forces would prevail, declaring: "They are not driving us out of anywhere."

Some Iraqis on the governing council appointed Sunday by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer say removing American Army patrols from city streets would reduce attacks on the soldiers.

Adel Murad, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—one of the two parties that control Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq—which holds a seat on the council, said his group supported the move.

"We think the best thing for the American troops to do is to go outside the cities and support the Iraqi police as they do the job," he said.

The U.S.-led coalition has hired about 32,000 Iraqi police officers and plans to double that number in the next month. In Fallujah, a town about 25 miles west of Baghdad where several major attacks have occurred, the American military says it has turned control largely over to Iraqi police, though U.S. troops still patrol its streets.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this report.)


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

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