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Surge in tips helps coalition capture guerrillas in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Muhannad al Hakim drove up to an intersection next to an elementary school in south Baghdad, a few blocks from home, when a car of gunmen opened fire and shot him to death.

Al Hakim was a member of a prominent Shiite political party, which announced his death on Thursday. He was also head of security for the Ministry of Education, and police said his murder may have been committed by Sunni Muslims, the backbone of Saddam Hussein's support, in retaliation for working with the American occupation.

At the same time, U.S. military officials say that tips leading to the capture of guerrilla fighters have increased since Saddam was captured Sunday near Tikrit.

The fight in Iraq seems to have become a grim race between American forces and individual Iraqis helping them stem the resistance, and guerrillas bent on killing collaborators and frightening others into silence.

American officials on Thursday said the rate of attacks on civilians such as al Hakim was rising dramatically.

In other developments, a soldier with the 1st Armored Division was killed late Wednesday night and another was wounded in an ambush in northwest Baghdad.

Meanwhile, American forces in Samarra, where one of the biggest U.S. military operations of the war is under way, said an increase in tips has led to the capture of guerrillas and their financiers. U.S. soldiers are getting as many as three informants a day in the area since Saddam's capture, said Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, a battalion commander. Previously they went days without a tip.

Iraqi Police Col. Abbas Nasser, whose station is handling the investigation of al Hakim's murder, said he thinks the killing, which occurred Wednesday, may have been a backlash against the coalition's policy of removing members with strong ties to Saddam's former Baath Party from government posts. In doing so, Nasser said, the coalition unwittingly painted a target on the backs of the people who get positions vacated by former Baathists.

Many career Baath members were Sunni, and those replacing them are often Shiite. But it's money and power, not religion, that motivate the attacks, Nasser said.

Abu Abbas, a lifelong friend of al Hakim's, also blamed Saddam loyalists who are trying to cause friction between Sunnis and Shiites.

"It's clear it's a political crime," said Adil Abdul Mahdi, a spokesman for Hakim's party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an influential Shiite Muslim political group.

Mahdi is the spokesman for the current president of the Iraqi provisional government, Abdel-Aziz al Hakim, whose brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, was killed in an August bombing.

Mahdi said there was no relation between Muhannad al Hakim and the current president or his late brother.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for coalition troops, said that attacks against civilians have increased considerably. In the past few months, he said, there was an attack or two on civilians every other day. Recently they have increased to two or three daily, he said.

There also have been assassinations or apparent attempts against government officials in recent months.

The attackers are trying to derail the creation of an autonomous Iraqi government in July, said Dan Senor, a coalition spokesman.

But in the guerrilla stronghold of Samarra, Sassaman, the battalion commander, said Saddam's capture almost immediately led to more tips about insurgents.

Hours after Saddam's capture, an informant arrived at a U.S. base and provided information on the location of Qais Hattem, a key Saddam deputy allegedly involved in financing guerrilla attacks.

An estimated 3,000 soldiers, backed by helicopter gunships, tanks, and F-16 fighter jets, poured into Samarra, an ancient city of mosques and minarets, sealing off roads, raiding homes and ordering a 9 p.m. curfew in an attempt to eradicate a resistance that's more coordinated and sophisticated than ever before.

By late Thursday, the military said it had arrested 86 people in raids and killed two people who tried to attack soldiers.

Some of those targeted said the informants were manipulating the U.S. military for their own ends.

"We don't have any terrorists inside this house," said Hashim Muhammed Hassan, 40, whose house was raided Wednesday night. "But some people are giving the wrong information to the Americans. They're seeking revenge for old problems."

Hassan's 36-year-old brother was killed in an explosion during the raid.

On Thursday, a large funeral tent was set up in front of the house, where a charred car was parked near a toppled wall. Inside the house, windows were shattered, a television was smashed, and clothes were on the floor in a pile.

"This is American-style terrorism," yelled Abdul Kader Hassan, 30, as a group of angry men nodded.

Around Samarra, walls are covered with anti-American graffiti: "Death to Bush," "Saddam Hussein is here," "Osama bin Laden is here" and "The resistance will go on."

"It's going to get worse after Saddam's capture," predicted Hashim Muhammed Hassan. "That's because the Americans are treating Iraqis in a bad way."

Sassaman said some people were wrongly targeted and that his soldiers had gone to their homes on Thursday and compensated them with cash, typically $20.

The military, he said, plans to bring in Iraqi police and troops of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a U.S-trained security body, to patrol the streets. They also plan to inject money into Samarra to build hospitals and provide other services to try to win residents' hearts and minds.

As in Baghdad, some Iraqis in Samarra feared for their lives because they were cooperating with the coalition.

The house of Iraqi Civil Defense Corpsman Sgt. Ibrahim Shehawas, 42, was bombed a few days ago because he was seen as collaborating. Now, he wears a green ski mask and sunglasses, like many of his co-workers at checkpoints in Samarra.

Saddam's capture and the raids, they fear, could make them targets of the guerrillas even more.


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