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Iraqi Attacks Show New Weapons Capabilities
Iraqi fighters ambush a U.S. military patrol and an American base near Balad, Iraq; 17 soldiers wounded.
Attacks By Iraqis Growing Bolder
Purported Hussein Tape Is Broadcast
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 5, 2003; Page A01
BALAD, Iraq, July 4 -- As many as 50 resistance fighters ambushed a U.S. military patrol early this morning, while another group wounded at least 17 soldiers in a mortar strike on an American base near here, bold attacks that demonstrated new organizational and weapons capabilities, soldiers and military officials said.
The attacks occurred only hours before the Arab television station al-Jazeera broadcast a scratchy audiotape message from a man claiming to be former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The speaker, whose voice has not been authenticated but sounded similar to Hussein's, said he still was in Iraq and suggested he was helping to direct assaults on U.S. forces.
He asserted that guerrilla "cells and brigades have been formed" and urged people to help the resistance effort, saying he hoped "the coming days will, God willing, be days of hardship and trouble for the infidel invaders."
The speaker also mocked the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq, saying: "Where are these weapons of mass destruction?"
The recording, which the speaker said was made on June 14, is the first purported audio message from the former Iraqi leader since an Australian newspaper reporter received a tape on May 5 that contained the voice of a man claiming to be Hussein. Al-Jazeera said it received the recording over the telephone today, a day after the United States announced a $25 million reward for the capture of Hussein or the confirmation of his death.
A U.S. official in Washington said the recording was being analyzed by U.S. intelligence agencies and that it was "premature to have a judgment on whether or not it is authentic."
U.S. military commanders and civilian reconstruction specialists in Iraq regard the capture or death of Hussein as vitally important to suppressing resistance activity and building confidence in the U.S.-led postwar occupation. The message, authentic or not, reinforced a widespread belief among ordinary Iraqis that Hussein is alive and continues to threaten the country's stability. Several Iraqis said they feared that the recording, which was replayed repeatedly on Arabic-language radio and television stations tonight, would fuel the resistance movement.
In Balad, a small farming town about 50 miles north of Baghdad, resistance activity already appeared to be in full swing. The mortar attack, which occurred late Thursday and wounded at least 17 members of the Army's 3rd Corps Support Command at a sprawling military base near the town, resulted in more injuries than any other single incident since President Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1. The subsequent ambush of the military patrol on a highway south of Balad sparked one of the most intense clashes in the past two months, with soldiers killing 11 Iraqis during three separate firefights that spanned eight hours, military officials said.
No U.S. soldiers were wounded in the ambush.
It began a few minutes before midnight when several Iraqis fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades at a convoy of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division that was patrolling the main highway between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, said Staff Sgt. Christopher McDaniel of Fort Worth, who led the patrol.
He said the patrolling soldiers -- all of whom were from the 3rd squadron of the division's 7th Cavalry -- immediately returned fire, killing several of the attackers and sending others fleeing.
While most of the soldiers were involved in the firefight, which occurred just north of Balad, a small contingent of troops headed south along the highway to establish radio contact with their base, he said. When they met up with northbound reinforcements about four miles south of the attack, they were ambushed again from sunflower fields that line both sides of the road, prompting soldiers to return fire with their M-16 rifles and the Bradley's 25mm cannon.
McDaniel said his soldiers were fired upon for a third time when they returned to the site of the initial ambush to retrieve the bodies of the victims and collect their weapons.
He said about 50 people were involved in the three ambushes. He said his troops recovered 11 bodies from the three attacks. Local residents said several Iraqis appeared to have been wounded.
First Sgt. Gary Gilmore of Newman, Ga., called the attack "the biggest one we've had" since Hussein's government was toppled. "They seemed to know what they were doing," he said.
Most attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq have involved small groups of gunmen, usually fewer than a half-dozen. A U.S. official said he had not heard of another attack involving as many as 50 people working together. "This is unusual and concerning," the official said. "A group of 50 suggests a degree of organization we haven't seen before."
The divided highway, which follows the Tigris River, is a key supply route for the U.S. military -- and a favorite target for resistance forces. Several convoys have been hit on the road in recent weeks, prompting some soldiers to drive their Humvees at more than 60 mph.
Gilmore said the soldiers have not yet determined whether the attackers live in the Balad area. A former member of Hussein's Republican Guard who now works as a farmer and lives near the site of the first ambush said the attackers were not local residents. But the locals, he said, do not like the presence of U.S. troops in the area.
"The only wish for the people now is the return of Saddam," said the soldier-turned-farmer, Faik Madina, 27. "The people here love Saddam because from the time we opened our eyes, he was doing good to us. He never harmed us like the Americans."
Less than two hours before the first ambush, four mortar shells were fired into the grounds of Camp Anaconda, a large U.S. base near Balad, said Capt. Sandra Chavez, a press officer for the Army's 4th Infantry Division. Of the 17 soldiers hurt in the incident, two were wounded seriously, she said.
Mortars, which can be fired from as far as four miles away, are a growing part of the fight against U.S. troops, allowing resistance fighters to attack heavily guarded bases in addition to shooting at convoys and troops guarding public buildings.
Military officials said the frequency of mortar attacks has increased in recent days. A mortar round landed this week within the grounds of the Baghdad International Airport, a high-security facility where the top U.S. military commander in Iraq works. In Ramadi, a town about 60 miles west of Baghdad, soldiers from the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment have had their field headquarters, located in one of Hussein's palace compounds, pelted with mortars for three nights this week. Wednesday night and Thursday morning, five mortar rounds fell just north of the compound, said Sgt. First Class Gary Qualls, a spokesman for the regiment.
Because the mortars typically are fired off in rapid succession by people who then flee, it has been difficult to capture any of the assailants. At the same time, that tactic means the attackers do not have time to observe their shots and adjust their targeting.
"We're fortunate that they're just shooting and running," said Capt. Michael Calvert, the regiment's press officer. "But the worry is that over time, they'll become more accurate."
In Baghdad, a soldier guarding the Baghdad Museum was killed by sniper fire on Thursday evening, military officials said. The soldier, Pfc. Edward J. Herrgott of Shakopee, Minn., was manning the gunner's hatch of a Bradley parked in front of the museum, which features wax figures depicting life in Baghdad a century ago.
In the quotes that were broadcast on al-Jazeera, which appeared to be excerpts from a longer recording, the speaker said he and his supporters had faced "a lot of trouble in getting our voice to you even though we have been trying."
The speaker urged Iraqis "to protect these heroic fighters and not give the infidel invaders any information about them or their whereabouts during their operations."
In an apparent attempt to explain why Hussein and his top aides fled as U.S. troops advanced on Baghdad, the speaker said: "What happened has happened. We sacrificed what we sacrificed -- our rule, but not our principles."
"We did not stab our people or our nation in the back," the speaker insisted.
"I miss you all," the speaker said, "even though I am in your midst."
Staff writer Marc Kaufman in Washington contributed to this report.