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Slaying of Iraqi mayor shows difficulty U.S. faces in bringing order

HADITHAH, Iraq—Mayor Mohammad Nayil Assaf's body was riddled with bullets. His son slumped beside him, also dead.

It was a slaughter in broad daylight Wednesday. One of the gunmen took the time to pop out a spent ammunition clip and reload before continuing to shoot into the corpses in Assaf's Toyota Avalon. The car shot up in flames, probably from a Molotov cocktail.

In a normally quiet town on the bank of the Euphrates, where palm trees and sunflowers grow, the murders seemed to convey a simple message: Don't cooperate with Americans.

Yet who killed the 52-year-old mayor and why is a mystery that illustrates the tangled web of local politics, crime and violence in Iraq that vastly complicates U.S. efforts to bring order. Assaf's murder may have resulted more from Hadithah's clan rivalries than the mayor's public association with American forces, an association that made U.S. forces uncomfortable from the start because of doubts about Assaf's behavior.

American military officials once blamed their problems squarely on fighters loyal to deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. Now they know that's only part of the picture.

Hadithah, about four hours northwest of Baghdad, sits in a far corner of the region known as the "Sunni Triangle" because the majority of its population is Sunni Muslim, the religion of Saddam. It recently has been home to some of the fiercest anti-American fighting in Iraq, including near-nightly mortar assaults on the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment's main base in Ramadi, to the east, and regular convoy ambushes that include attacks with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47's.

"This whole Iraqi thing is a hard story to tell," said Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, of the 3rd Infantry Division, which controls Fallujah, in between Baghdad and Ramadi. "What you have is a bunch of decentralized, probably not coordinated, disaffected groups" including Islamic extremists, Baathist loyalists, thugs and fighters from surrounding nations.

"It makes it far more challenging," Wesley said

It was natural to think that Assaf was killed because he had regular meetings with Army officials and had been seen walking though the markets with soldiers.

Yet some say the mayor made enemies because he ran the town like a gangster, ripping people off and hoarding public money. Some say he was the victim of centuries-old tribal feuds. Others think criminals took out a contract on his life because he was a strict law-and-order man.

"This is such a complicated situation over here," said Sgt. 1st Class Gary Qualls, of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, which patrols Hadithah and much of the surrounding territory. "There are so many factors, and you don't know who your enemies are."

Or your friends.

On the streets of Hadithah, opinions are divided.

"It was a personal problem between the tribes," said Omar Yassim, standing behind a grocer's counter. "If I had a problem with you, maybe I'd shoot you and say it was because you were cooperating with the Americans."

The day before Assaf's death, fliers that said government officials should leave their positions or face violence were distributed through Hadithah.

"If someone kills your children or your brother, how would you feel? This is how we see the Americans," Sayid Kassim said. "The mayor brought them here and took them walking in the market. . . . What I know is anyone who deals with the Americans, they will kill him."

Assaf rose to power in the chaos after the United States toppled Saddam. In the waning days of the war, Assaf simply named himself mayor. He was supported by his Jukaifa tribe, which controls Hadithah through a myriad of subtribes.

"Even during the Saddam regime, they left this area alone because of the Jukaifa tribe," said 1st Lt. Tim Barnes, a military intelligence officer with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment.

Assaf told the Americans he was installed by the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi exile-led political party that the Pentagon supported at the time. It took U.S. military commanders some time to figure out that Assaf had nothing to do with the INC.

"He used it because he understood they were closest to the Americans," Barnes said.

After they caught wind of some of Assaf's alleged criminal enterprises, U.S. Army officials "fired" him and insisted on an election among the local tribal sheiks.

But the sheiks the military officers knew were introduced by Assaf. And they were all Assaf's relatives, Barnes said. That left other tribes without votes. When the sheiks elected Assaf by a healthy margin, the Army was "put in a position we really couldn't back out of," Barnes said.

Assaf allegedly took full advantage of that. When the United States sent cash for pension payments to government workers in town, the money went to a bank where Assaf's cousin was in charge. Some of the money, Barnes said, never made its way to the intended recipients.

Friends and relatives of Assaf set up roadblocks in town, Barnes said, and took cars from people at gunpoint, claiming that the U.S. coalition had asked the mayor to collect all vehicles that the former regime's government had used.

"He'd set up these checkpoints and take the vehicles at gunpoint," Barnes said. "This area is really a mafia-type town."

In the days after Assaf's death, his tribe still appeared influential.

Leaning over his desk at the police station, Zaid Abed, one of Assaf's nephews, kept his right hand on a pistol in front of him. Abed said he was a first lieutenant with the Iraqi police, but local Army officials said Abed and his men were a self-appointed militia. The attack on his uncle came, Abed said, because the mayor was tough on crime

"He didn't let the looters take things, so they wanted to take revenge on him," Abed said. "Yes, they accused him of having links with the Americans, but the major reason was the looters were angry."

The 19- and 20-year-old men in Abed's office shared that view, milling around with AK-47's slung over their shoulders, looking very much in control.


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