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As threats, attacks against U.S. intensify, officials stress successes

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As new warnings of threats against American targets surfaced in the Middle East this weekend, as a roadside bomb killed two more soldiers in Iraq and as explosions again rocked the Baghdad neighborhood where coalition officials live and work, U.S. officials worked overtime to describe recent attacks as individual "spectacular" events and the overall picture in Iraq as one of improvement.

After the bloodiest week in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1—a week when 34 U.S. soldiers died, most in two helicopter crashes that killed 22 soldiers and injured 26—there was more grim news in Baghdad as the International Red Cross announced it would temporarily close its bombed-out offices in Baghdad as well as in Basra. This followed Spain's withdrawal Wednesday of many of its diplomatic staff.

But American officials insist that there have been important successes.

In an early morning raid Saturday just south of Kirkuk, U.S. forces captured a former bodyguard of Saddam Hussein believed to have been involved in recent attacks against the coalition. On Friday an Iraqi turned in seven surface-to-air missiles in Dohuk, north of Mosul. On Tuesday Americans captured two former Iraqi Army general officers suspected of financing and organizing anti-coalition fighters in Fallujah.

Into this mix on Saturday afternoon stepped Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who planned overnight in Baghdad "to very graphically demonstrate that we've got momentum in this process in Iraq."

"It's not a secret to anyone that in the Baghdad, Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah area we've got a security problem and we're sobered by the problem," Armitage said. "I'm absolutely convinced that we have a very solid plan to go out and get these people who are killing us and killing Iraqis."

In Baghdad, only eight to ten zones out of 88 in any given week are rated very dangerous, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling. In a city of 5.5 million, Hertling estimated, "we think there's about 500 really bad guys."

Half of these insurgents are common criminals out to make a buck, or "disenfranchised guys out of work, who will shoot an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) at a coalition force or plant an IED (bomb) for money," Hertling said.

The other half is made up of about eight and 10 cells of former regime loyalists (with about 20 to 25 people in each), plus about 50 foreign fighters, Hertling said.

"We are still definitely fighting an insurgency operation, but we think the enemy has been dramatically reduced," Hertling said, expressing frustration with the media focus on individual, dramatic attacks, such as the downing of a Blackhawk helicopter Friday, which killed 6 soldiers, at the expense of what Hertling said was the "big picture."

That helicopter crash prompted a massive, retaliatory "show of force" in Tikrit early Saturday morning, with U.S. forces pounding buildings with tank shells, rockets, mortars and bombs in an effort to destroy houses used by insurgents and inspire respect.

Meanwhile, U.S. consular officials reminded U.S. citizens that terrorist groups may be planning new attacks against American targets in the Middle East. The warning said "increased security at official U.S. facilities has led terrorists and their sympathizers to seek softer targets such as public transportation, residential areas, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, hotels, schools, outdoor recreation events, resorts and beaches."

And so Baghdad remained a capital on edge at the end of the second week of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and family get-togethers.

Asked if the administration would reclassify Iraq as a war zone in light of the latest attacks, Armitage said, "I think it is a war zone. The president declared an end of major combat, but he didn't say it was the end of combat."

Referring to comments previously made by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Armitage added, "we are involved in an insurgency and that's pretty close to war."


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