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Increase in attacks on Iraqi security forces may signal shift in strategy

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A series of attacks last week on Iraqi security forces suggests that as the June 30 deadline for the handover of sovereignty approaches, insurgents are seeking to destabilize the country and its new government by attacking Iraqis instead of Western targets.

Assaults on U.S. troops have fallen since April's frenetic pace. Attacks have increased on the relatively untrained and ill-equipped Iraqi security forces and infrastructure, particularly oil lines.

Although it's difficult to decipher the motives of the shadowy insurgency, the increase in attacks on Iraqi security personnel might signal a shift in strategy to topple the Iraqi-led government.

Many Iraqis see the new government as composed of American puppets and collaborators, although it's possible that perception could change.

Walid al Shabib Hilli, a spokesman for the al Da'waa Party, a powerful Shiite Muslim group in Iraq, said the new government hasn't been well received.

"It does not represent Iraq; it does not have much power," he said.

This month so far, Iraqi policing agencies have been involved in 67 engagements, according to U.S. military numbers, which are considered to be an undercount. If that trend holds, the total for June would come close to 200. In May, it was 147, and in April it was 135.

Figures for the number of Iraqi security personnel killed weren't available.

As the number of attacks on Iraqis have increased since May, the U.S. military has seen a drop in engagements and soldiers killed.

In April, during intense fighting in Fallujah and Najaf, 135 soldiers were killed, creating the deadliest month so far. That number shrank to 81 in May, but it was still the third deadliest month of the war, after 82 soldiers were killed in November.

Another decline in U.S. casualties is expected in June.

A top military official, who spoke on the condition on anonymity, said Friday that he's not convinced that the insurgents are intentionally changing their targets.

Rather, he said, they're continuing to attack as many soldiers as possible while ramping up assaults on internal Iraqi forces and infrastructure. The goal, he said is clear: to show that the Americans and the newly appointed government don't have control of the country.

"The enemy is trying to use terrorist techniques to not only (drive) out their enemy, but to intimidate the population, to break the population's will," he said. "They have been more successful than we would have liked. ... What they're trying to do is drive a wedge into all of this, and they've been successful."

The past week has been a rough one for Iraqi security troops:

_ Seven policemen were killed last Saturday and their police station blown up south of Baghdad in the town of Musayyib.

_ The next day, gunmen in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City told police to leave a station recently visited by U.S. soldiers, then blew up the station.

_ On Wednesday, the Fallujah Brigade, a collection of former Iraqi army soldiers patrolling the restive western town, was hit by a mortar attack that injured a dozen.

_ In the southern town of Najaf on Thursday, fighting between militiamen and police reportedly left six dead and 29 wounded. One police station was battered with machine-gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, and another was taken over by gunmen.

_ On Friday, there were news reports that gunmen rushed a police station in the southern town of Yusufiyah before demolishing it.

In the past, car bombings have killed police and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps personnel, but actual combat had been rare.

Iraqi security forces are often under-equipped—one of the Najaf police stations ran out of ammunition during the firefight—and they are understaffed.

Many Iraqis say the country needs its own army to maintain stability. But according to numbers provided by the U.S. military, the new Iraqi army, still in its formative stages, is short by 27,880 men of its initial target of 35,000.

Insurgents have also targeted the country's infrastructure, mostly attacking oil pipelines to hamper electricity supply.

Iyad Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, said in a written statement that during the past several months, such attacks have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, lost revenues and a nationwide loss of power of more than four hours per day.

Allawi has repeatedly called for the attacks to stop, saying that they are undermining Iraq's future.

"These saboteurs are not freedom fighters. They are terrorists and foreign fighters opposed to our very survival as a free state," he said.

American officials have tried to cast the violence as Iraqis attacking Iraqi interests and have said repeatedly that the June 30 handover of sovereignty will reduce U.S. involvement and motivation for the attacks.

"This is one of the many benefits of having Iraqi leaders in charge," said a top American official in Baghdad.

But Allawi will have a difficult job establishing his credibility.

His political organization has received funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. And he lost a lot of the support when he asked that U.S. soldiers stay in Iraq, said Nabil Younis, a political professor at Baghdad University.

Allawi "has to know that the people do not accept the presence of these troops on Iraqi land," he said. "Most of the Iraqi people look at this government as a puppet for the Americans ... more than 90 percent of the people here agree with the resistance."

On Friday, Ali Salman, 18, was at the site of a car bombing on an American military convoy, which witnesses said killed one U.S. soldier. Looking at the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps members walking around the scene, Salman said: "They are all spies. They have done nothing for us. If they knew someone has attacked the Americans, they would tell the Americans about him."

The crowd of Iraqis nodded in agreement.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040611 USIRAQ deaths

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