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Iraqis thought to be aiding U.S. forces are marked for death

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When the list appeared with his name on it, Fahmy Sabah's relatives begged him to go away for a while.

Copies made their way from street to street in the Aadhamiya neighborhood, a caldron of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Residents were told the names belonged to people who had been marked for death because they collaborated with the occupiers, that is, U.S. troops and civilian administrators.

"He said, `Why should I leave?' " said one of his brothers, Abdul Sabah. " `I am not afraid. I did nothing.' "

Five days ago, a man stepped out of a pickup and shot the 51-year-old Sabah in the doorway of a convenience store, killing him in the shadow of the mosque where he used to collect money for poor people.

The gunman sped away and hasn't been caught. If the murder isn't troubling enough, consider the sentiments of Sabah's friend, Riad Ahmed, who owns the shop where he was gunned down: "If he really was a spy, then he deserved to be killed. But I tell you he was not."

It's a classic guerrilla tactic: If you can't defeat the soldiers, punish civilians who cooperate with them. That's what the shadowy collection of resisters to the American-led occupation of Iraq increasingly is doing.

Last month, a bomb in the town of Ramadi killed seven U.S.-trained Iraqi police cadets just days after their graduation. A few weeks later, a pro-American mayor in Haditha, north of Baghdad, was assassinated in an attack that also killed his youngest son.

A man in Thuluya was forced to help kill his 28-year-old son by villagers who believed the son had informed on them to the Americans. In June, the director of electricity distribution for the western half of Baghdad was shot to death in her front doorway, setting back the crucial effort to rebuild the power grid.

The trend troubles American officials here and dismays Iraqis who want the occupation to succeed. But at least some segment of the Iraqi population expresses support for the tactic, so disillusioned are they about the U.S.-led military presence.

"Those who cooperate as a spy, yeah, they should be killed," said Khalid Mohammed, 37, speaking in Aadhamiya, about 100 feet away from two Wisconsin National Guard troops who were guarding the police station.

The Iraqi resistance appears to have nowhere near the sophistication or the reach of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, also known as the Viet Cong, which routinely tortured and executed villagers for cooperating with American forces.

But the Iraqi insurgents have shown the willingness to harm their country's infrastructure, as evidenced by the sabotage attacks in recent days on a northern oil pipeline and a Baghdad water main.

Most of the attacks against so-called collaborators, like most of the violence against American troops, have been in the area known as the Sunni triangle, encompassing Baghdad and the towns to the north and home to those who benefited most from Saddam's regime.

Sabah was killed in the shadow of the Abu Hanifa mosque, one of Baghdad's most beautiful.

He was a deeply religious man who wore a flowing beard and traditional garb. People called him "Haj," a religious honorific, and friends said he spent much of his time helping out in mosques or caring for poor people.

Sabah's relatives said they were certain he hadn't provided information to the Americans. Some people came to suspect he was a collaborator, they speculated, because he once placed himself between a crowd of people and American tanks to prevent violence.

A couple of weeks ago, they said, he went to the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters in the Republican Palace to talk to someone about squatters who were living in a house he owned. The Americans arrested him and detained him for hours, his brothers said, keeping him in a painful position and questioning him about an attack on a tank.

"When he came back, some people accused him of being a spy," his friend Ahmed said. "If he was a spy, why did he owe me 10,000 dinars?"

Hatred of the American-led occupation seethes on the streets around the mosque and bubbles up into mythmaking. In the building's main tower is a hole from a U.S. tank round fired during the war, and locals are convinced it was a Jewish soldier who fired it. Some also believe there are thousands of secret American casualties buried at the airport.

Of 10 people interviewed in the neighborhood, including two of Sabah's brothers, all said they were angry over the killing of the Haj, but only because they thought he was a good man who wasn't a spy for the Americans.

All but one said they loathed the U.S. occupation, supported those who resisted it and thought that anyone who gave information to the U.S. military should be executed.

"Of course they should be killed," said Aus al Adami, who described himself as a former agent in Saddam's domestic security service. "We are fighting for our country."

Sabah's two brothers said they, too, were angry at the Americans, mainly because of their failure to provide security, electricity and jobs. But unlike some of the others, they were in no hurry to see U.S. forces leave.

"We live in a jungle now, and if they leave it will be worse," Abdul Sabah said.

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)


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