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Violence in Iraq an increasing cycle of retaliation

BAGHDAD—Violence against Iraqi civilians worsened in the week following former dictator Saddam Hussein's capture, and many Iraqis and American occupiers are worried about where it's headed.

Although many of those attacked were political and religious leaders or former leaders, it's also unclear who's pulling the triggers or why.

"It is like a civil war between these factions," said Hassan al Ani, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "Iraq now is a case study in transition; to what, we don't know. Maybe to democracy, maybe to chaos."

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for U.S.-led coalition troops, acknowledged that attacks against civilians are up sharply. In recent months, he said, there'd been an attack or two on civilians every other day. Now, he said, there are two or three daily, with 21 in the past week alone.

He said that U.S. intelligence so far has not determined a cause.

"We don't have either anecdotal or factual information suggesting that the former regime elements and terrorists are targeting any specific group," he said. "We think what is going on, more than anything else, is this is an opportunity for former regime elements to send a clear message to the people of Iraq: that we have the capability to reach out and touch you, the old terrorist adage of kill one, terrorize 1,000."

Iraqi police Lt. Hussein Abed Ali, a career officer whose sector of southern Baghdad has been the site of several recent assassinations, said it's simpler than that. He believes a faction or factions of Shiite Muslims, who were oppressed under Saddam Hussein's regime, are killing former members of Saddam's Baath Party, most of whom, like the deposed dictator, are Sunni Muslim.

At the same time, Abed Ali said, "the Baathists are afraid of being killed by the Shiites, so what they're doing now is `shoot and kill' before they are killed."

Because most of the Baathists being killed are Sunni Muslim, the conflict looks to be religious: Sunni vs. Shiite. But the dynamic is also political, pitting embattled Baathists accustomed to suppressing Shiites against Shiites who aim to dominate their country's future.

The killings, according to Abed Ali, are well planned and seem to include a very specific knowledge of the targets' homes and usual driving routes. They are fast, efficient and bloody.

In his neighborhood, al Baya, he said, assassins killed four or five Baathists in the past 10 days alone.

He said the targets are picked from widely disseminated lists of former ranking bureaucrats of Saddam's party. And he's not particularly worried about the deaths. The lists, and many of the murders, he said, are the work of the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who fought Saddam for years and were brutally suppressed by him.

"I think they have the right to do it, because the Baathists used to hurt a lot of people," he said. "You know the nature of Arab people and revenge."

Iraqi Police Col. Bassam Abdul Aziz who oversees another south Baghdad neighborhood, Yarmuk, just north of al Baya, said he's seen lists of assassination targets with 100 to 150 names on them. The Badr Brigade, Abdul Aziz said, is working down its fourth list.

In one recent night shift, he said, three known Baathists were gunned down.

Earlier this month, Gen. Khalaf Alousi, former head of internal security for the city of Baghdad, was shot to death in Abdul Aziz's patrol zone.

Alousi was on the way to check on a house he was building when a car with three men pulled up, Abdul Aziz said. One stepped out and shot Alousi three times, once in the head and twice in the chest.

"It's the political parties against each other and the Baathists," Abdul Aziz said. "I have 30 years of experience of police work in Baghdad—I know what I'm seeing."

A spokesman for SCIRI the Iran-backed revolutionary group in Baghdad, Adil Mahdi, said the Badr Brigade is not responsible for the deaths. Instead, he said, the violence is mainly work of Saddam loyalists, mixed with some foreign fighters, who are trying to inflame Sunnis against Shiites in hopes of sparking widespread revolt.

"They're trying to influence us psychologically, to make us feel as if we're encircled," he said.

Less than two weeks after Alousi's death, a member of SCIRI, Muhammad al Hakim, was driving to work near Yarmuk when gunmen in a non-descript white car, with no plates, ambushed him.

He was shot once in the head and twice in the neck.

The next day, a building used by SCIRI's Badr Brigade in nearby al Jihad blew up at 5 a.m., killing a homeless woman and injuring two of her relatives.

Survivors said the Badr Brigade had recently arrived in the neighborhood, an enclave of Sunni in the predominantly Shiite area, and announced that they were starting religion classes.

At about the same time, a local Shiite sheikh, Wassam al Wadi, was driving home from morning prayer in Gazalia, a sector of southern Baghdad. A light brown car without plates raced up alongside his Volkswagen. Gunmen opened fire, spraying bullets into al Wadi for half a block until his car slammed into a brick wall.

"I don't think the Sunni did it," said Hatam Abu Omar, a grocer who watched as the sheik's funeral procession went down the street. "But during the funeral, some people came and yelled that the Sunni did it."


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