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Ambush Attacks Main Threat to U.S. Troops in Iraq
Mon April 14, 2003 09:14 AM ET
By Kieran Murray
MAHMUDIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's army was quickly destroyed and the promised urban guerrilla war has been far weaker than expected but anti-American forces may still have one military option left -- hit-and-run attacks.
The main threat facing U.S. troops in Baghdad and most of Iraq now appears to be suicide bombings, attacks by armed lone assailants or small groups of paramilitaries using large crowds of ordinary civilians as cover.
Six U.S. soldiers were wounded, at least three of them seriously, and another 10 suffered lighter shrapnel injuries in this small town south of Baghdad on Sunday night when a team of paramilitaries attacked as they unloaded mortar rounds from a captured weapons cache at a local police station.
One man tossed a grenade at the soldiers from behind a crowd of civilians as others simultaneously opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles from three separate spots on the street.
Senior military officers say the incident, which follows deadly suicide bomb attacks on other U.S. forces, shows there are continued pockets of resistance despite the collapse of Saddam's army and government.
"We are certainly going to be dealing with people who do not want us here and they want to hold on to whatever power they had," said Col. Joseph Anderson, a brigade commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
Most of the soldiers injured in Mahmudiya were in heavy street fighting with Saddam loyalists in the city of Kerbala earlier this month. Their units came out virtually unscathed from that fight, only to suffer far higher casualties in Sunday's hit-and-run attack.
"This is a little town and you'd think it would be harmless but it is still a bastion for this type of paramilitary," Anderson said on Monday as troops under his command scoured the town for irregular fighters and blew up several weapons caches.
Attack helicopters zipped low over the town and U.S. forces entered government and Baath Party offices and even a local hospital, where they found the body of one Iraqi killed in Sunday's clash and were told another had died on his way to hospital in Baghdad.
Although such ambushes have limited impact in strictly military terms, an organized campaign could slow down U.S. forces as they try to take full military control of Iraq and begin policing and reconstruction efforts.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS ...
Everything else tried to halt the U.S. invasion failed. Saddam's army collapsed under massive aerial assaults and all attempts to make a determined stand in urban street battles were disastrous with Iraqi fighters dying by the hundreds and U.S.-led forces taking far fewer casualties than expected.
Senior U.S. commanders are pleased to see a start to joint foot patrols of U.S. servicemen and Iraqi police in Baghdad and a similar effort with British troops in Basra, Iraq's second city.
They hope those policing patrols will take the pressure off U.S. forces and help cut the risk of ambushes.
"Long-term, we have to transition to a local security force taking over... The sooner the better," said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division.
In the meantime, U.S. troops are likely to take a firmer line in handling the huge crowds that swarm around them wherever they go.
"Our mistake was crowd control," said Michael Lanzer, an army private who was lucky to escape without injury in the grenade attack. Two men standing next to him were hit with shrapnel.
"The crowds mass up so much that you can't pick out who could be an enemy and who isn't," he said. "Now we won't let them get as close. I know a lot of these people are celebrating that we're here but we can't control it when they get so close."
As U.S. troops fanned out across Mahmudiya on Monday, the normally bustling town slowed almost to a halt. Stores were closed, most residents stayed in their homes and there was no sign of the welcoming crowds seen over the weekend.
U.S. soldiers said they felt more tension in the air than in Baghdad or anywhere else they had been in Iraq, and they were already being more aggressive in keeping all civilians and vehicles at a safe distance.