ABU GHRAIB, Iraq—On the same Sunday that Iraqi guerrillas shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 16 U.S. soldiers, a less publicized battle was fought, and arguably lost, in the trash-strewn streets of the rough and tumble town of Abu Ghraib, 15 miles west of Baghdad.
A bus was set afire by tracer rounds from an American machine gun after someone threw a hand grenade at a U.S. Humvee. An hour later, dozens of men and teenage boys gathered less than 100 yards away, many of them shouting angrily as they described what they said was indiscriminate fire from the Americans.
Suddenly, an American armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle roared forward and smashed into the bus. The crowd scattered into a narrow alley full of market stalls. Then the Bradley ran over a truck, crushing one side beneath its tracks, and clattered away.
"You see how they behave, and they call us terrorists?" shouted Khassan Naim, a 32-year-old shopkeeper. "You see how they treat us? As long as they are here, and until we have an Iraqi government and are free again, we will continue to fight them."
U.S. civilian and military officials have tried to blame the recent increase in anti-American attacks on foreign fighters and diehard loyalists of Saddam Hussein's former regime. But that overlooks what's increasingly clear in the so-called Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad: The United States appears to be losing the battle for the hearts and minds of many Iraqis who haven't yet chosen a side.
As a result, as a new secret CIA assessment from Iraq noted this week, many Iraqis who might have been counted on at least to remain neutral now believe the U.S.-led coalition can be defeated and are supporting the opposition.
The CIA report warns that unless changes are undertaken immediately, the effort to rebuild the country as a democracy could collapse, with disastrous results.
But prominent Iraqis say it's unclear whether any of the changes being discussed in Washington—giving Iraqis greater authority over security or investing more authority in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council—will make any difference. They say a series of blunders by the Americans going back to the closing days of the push to Baghdad may have made it impossible for the Americans to gain the trust of many in central Iraq.
"If we lose the center, we lose, even if we win the north and the south," said a senior U.S. official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the administration's public line is more optimistic.
"If people tell you that we support the Americans, they are lying," said Prince Rabia Mohammed al Habib, who claims the leadership of 140 Iraqi tribes and whose Baghdad home was raided in July by U.S. commandos looking for Saddam.
"The Americans have chosen their own people, without giving the Iraqis the chance to choose," al Habib said. "Now the people think that what has happened is exactly the same as Saddam Hussein; nothing has changed."
Also, a tougher coalition military tack in the Sunni triangle, which Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. general in Iraq, announced plans for Tuesday, threatens to backfire in an area of Iraq where the population already thinks the coalition ignores their concerns. Prominent Sunni Muslims note that a majority of the Governing Council's members are Shiite Muslims. Sunnis have long ruled Iraq and under Saddam brutally repressed the country's Shiite majority.
Other prominent Iraqis blame the Americans for a series of missteps that began the day that Baghdad fell April 9, including a reluctance to crack down hard on criminal elements and looters.
"There were many mistakes," said Brig. Gen. Tawfik al Yassiri, a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council and secretary-general of the Iraqi National Coalition, an umbrella exile group.
Among the mistakes, al Yassiri said, was the decision not to imprison many members of the former regime, including members of Saddam's Baath Party and agents of the former dictator's intelligence services. That, al Yassiri said, "gave them a sense they could move freely."
At the same time, disbanding the Baath Party, shutting down the army, eliminating other security agencies and dismantling the Ministries of Defense and Information put hundreds of thousands of men out of work and bolstered the ranks of the disenfranchised. Many have become ready recruits for the opposition, some U.S. officials acknowledge.
"(The) de-Baathification policy and disbanding the army made unemployment even worse: too many angry young men, with no hope for the future, on the streets," one U.S. Army officer, knowledgeable about strategy and tactics in Iraq, told Knight Ridder, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "Along with finding a way to reconcile with the Sunnis, it's a problem without a military solution."
Efforts at reconciliation have been feeble and jobs programs anemic. A public works project in Baghdad has put 100,000 people to work on the streets, but it's mostly cleaning up rubble and other menial tasks. Officials say they've recruited more than 100,000 Iraqis for security jobs in the new army, the police, the civil defense corps and the border patrol, and there are plans to have 200,000 in uniform by next September.
That might be too little, too late. Frustration is growing, particularly in the Sunni areas.
"The Americans don't treat the Sunnis well at all, and there are a lot of us in the population: thinkers, experts, scientists, military leaders," said Dr. Abdullah Hassan al Hadithy, a professor at the University of Islamic Sciences in Baghdad and a cleric. "They sidelined the Sunnis, and we don't appreciate this because we want to rebuild the country, too."
The frustration has led to a resurgence of the Baath Party in many areas, not because locals are Saddam sympathizers, but because they long for the security and economic stability of the old regime.
"In Diyala (northeast of Baghdad), they are carrying every house. They are putting up pictures of Saddam Hussein," al Habib said. "What can the soldiers do? They sit in their Hummers and go down this street and that street, and when someone fires an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) at them, they turn back. What can they do? Nothing at all."
Some anti-U.S. feeling can be traced to incidents early in the occupation. In April, a group of paratroopers shot innocent civilians during a demonstration in Fallujah, setting the stage for what has become a hotbed of resistance.
Al Yassiri helped arrange meetings between U.S. forces and local leaders after the incident in an effort to improve relations. The locals demanded an end to disrespectful searches, a withdrawal by American forces from the center of the city and the removal of Fallujah's U.S.-appointed governor. American troops agreed to withdraw from the city right away, which was a hopeful sign, al Yassiri said.
But follow-up meetings weren't held and the searches got worse. "And I myself withdrew from this process because I was embarrassed," al Yassiri said.
Al Yassiri cited another incident that he said showed the insensitivity of U.S. actions. American troops raided a wedding party hosted by one of the most important sheiks in the area, who'd also helped arranged meetings between local leaders and U.S. officers. The Americans arrested the sheik's brother and the brother's son, along with 17 others in the wedding party.
"The Iraqis understood this as a message: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans," he said. "The tribal wedding party is a big deal. You can't just come in and arrest someone. They should have waited."
American soldiers recognize that some of the Iraqis they work with daily may not be their friends.
"We had one of our workers out here the other day who said, `We take your money today, and we will shoot you tomorrow,' " said Capt. Tammy Galloway, a public affairs officer with the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. "It's crazy out there."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Prince Rabia Mohammed al Habib