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Attacks against coalition forces show Iraqi discontent

BAGHDAD, Iraq—More than five hours after a grenade attack Thursday in southern Baghdad on a U.S. military convoy that injured two U.S. soldiers, Iraqi citizens were still gathered around the smoldering skeletons of American trucks, chanting, "Iraq is strong! Iraq will make them pay!"

Elsewhere, in Majar al Kabir, the southern Iraq town where six British soldiers were killed by a crowd on Tuesday, the streets were tense, with locals promising more dead troops if coalition forces returned.

"It is better if they did not come back," said Saleh Hassan, surrounded by a crowd of Iraqi men with Ak-47s slung over their shoulders. "Maybe there will be another fight."

The argument by the U.S. administration in Iraq that coalition forces are under attack only by Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters was growing less and less credible as evidence of popular discontent at the occupation mounted. A series of attacks against U.S. forces Thursday, killing one soldier and injuring at least 10 others, was making the grip of the U.S. military look more and more tenuous.

The violence began early Thursday morning, U.S. Central Command said, when one special forces soldier was killed and eight others injured during a firefight with hostile forces in southwest Baghdad.

The military also reported that in Al-Hillah, a city south of Baghdad, one Marine was killed in a vehicle accident on Wednesday while rushing to the aid of other Marines under fire. Two other Marines were injured in that accident, and four others were hurt during the original ambush.

On Thursday afternoon, in southern Baghdad, a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a heavy equipment moving truck injured two soldiers.

Also Thursday, U.S. officials said that two soldiers have been missing for more than 24 hours. They would not elaborate.

An Iraqi civilian who was working with the Americans, working as a driver for Iraq's Director of Rehabilitation of Electricity, was killed when an explosive, possibly a rocket-propelled grenade, was lobbed at his vehicle.

Some Arabic language newspapers also reported that Haifa Aziz Daoud, a manager who was in charge of electricity distribution, was shot and killed at her home in Baghdad on Wednesday morning. When she answered her door, she was apparently shot three times in the chest. U.S. officials could not provide further details Thursday.

U.S. officials fear that the acts of sabotage that have plagued oil pipelines and electrical power transmission lines have turned to targeted assassinations of Iraqis who cooperate with U.S. troops and civilian administrators.

"They are trying to sabotage the infrastructure and it was a fragile infrastructure to begin with," Coalition spokesman Col. Guy Shields said. "A couple of days without water and electricity make life uncomfortable, and it plays into their hands. Iraqis are now attacking Iraqis. But we're not going to run away from it. It's a small number of fellow Iraqis trying to sabotage their future."

With the occupation of Iraq entering its third month, many former U.S. supporters have traded sides, cursing the Americans and British as "invaders" and "thieves."

In Majar al Kabir, the charred remnants of two British military vehicles sat in front of the local community center, and there were bullet holes sprayed across concrete barriers, walls and telephone poles. There was not a single British soldier in sight. Young Iraqi men with AK-47s stood watch at roadblocks outside of town.

The men at the checkpoints are part of a local security force that apparently was involved in Tuesday's fight.

"When they killed civilians, we started to shoot," said Haider Ibrahim, one of the group's leaders. After Ibrahim spoke, another man said something, in a sharp tone, and Ibrahim clarified that "we can't tell who did the shooting."

British officials have offered few details about their version of events, and said they would investigate and work with local authorities to find those responsible.

On Tuesday morning, a group of British soldiers was seen at a former Iraqi military camp, said Salam Abdul Wahed, director of the town's community center and a local leader. Wahed and a group of men went out there to see what the troops were doing. The soldiers said they wanted to patrol the town, and, Wahed said, "We told them people here need to calm down, but they insisted on the patrol."

People of the town already were angry over house-to-house searches that they said violated the privacy accorded to Muslim women, and that crossed a cultural taboo by using search dogs. Many Muslims believe dogs should not be allowed inside homes.

The patrol was on its way through downtown Majar al Kabir when the soldiers decided to get out and walk on foot. Witnesses said a group of children began throwing fruit and rocks at the troops.

Talal Ahmed, a grocer, came out of his store to see what all the noise was about. He jumped between one of the soldiers and a small boy. The soldier, Ahmed and many other witnesses said, reacted by swinging the barrel of his gun at Ahmed, hitting him in the face and knocking him to the ground.

"We did not want them in the city," said Ahmed, who on Thursday bore a scar across his left cheek from where he said the gun hit him.

As Ahmed went down, the crowd of children, now joined by adults, surged forward, throwing a storm of rocks. The British soldiers retreated toward their vehicles and one of them fired.

The bullet was probably crowd control "dummy" ammunition, said Haider Ibrahim.

"When he shot that bullet, it was plastic, but we did not know," said Ibrahim, of the town's security team.

"After that," Wahed said, "everything burned up, it was out of control."

The townspeople chased the soldiers down the street, shooting, screaming and throwing rocks. A British helicopter came in with a rapid response team. Eight on board the craft were injured.

Ahmed Abdul Hussain, an Iraqi shot through the arm during the melee—he maintained that he was running away from the scene—said that beyond the body count, the biggest damage done was to how his neighbors and friends view the coalition.

"They think that the Iraqi man is nothing," Hussain said.

At the site of Thursday's grenade attack in Baghdad, a boy of about 10 stood precariously on what remained of the truck's cab and beat it with a two-foot long piece of pipe, the force of his strikes almost causing him to fall. Others picked rocks from the ground and hurled them at the soot-covered frame.

One man leaned out of his car window and shouted at an American journalist: "Go home before we kill you one by one!"

"I'm very happy to see this. We're going to fight them with all we have until the last American leaves this place," said Hadi Salah, who was driving home to Baghdad after visiting a relative's home outside the city when he saw the crowd gathered around the trucks.

The vehicles sat on a dirt median of the city's major north-south highway.

"They're invaders who deserve to die," added Mothar Abraham, who enthusiastically answered, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" when asked if he was happy that American soldiers were killed. "You see we are all very happy to be here."

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(Pompilio and Hull reported from Baghdad, Lasseter from Majar al Kabir, Iraq.)

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

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