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Attacks Becoming Routine
Military worries that assailants will learn from failures, sap U.S. morale.
Non-Fatal Attacks Threaten Soldiers in Iraq
BAGHDAD, July 8 -- The combat engineers inside the tan Humvees had traversed the Wedding Island Bridge dozens of times to fetch their translator. It was a routine trip, soldiers in the unit said. Cross the narrow bridge. Pick him up. Drive back over the bridge to complete their assignment for the day.
But this morning, as they headed onto the bridge at 9:10 a.m., the lead Humvee encountered what has become another routine for U.S. forces in this simmering city. A bone-rattling explosion punched the vehicle several feet into the air, spewing an orange fireball and a cloud of black smoke.
The Humvee fell back to the bridge, its left wheels touching down and bouncing back up before the right side, propelled higher by the blast, smashed into the ground. Shrapnel and flying asphalt shattered the windshield and dented the vehicle's body.
After the Humvee came to a stop, the driver appeared to pause for a split second before restarting the engine and flooring the accelerator, swerving to the left and right as he sped off the bridge and peeled into a connecting road.
The explosion, which military investigators say they believe was caused by a land mine planted on the side of the bridge, was witnessed by a Washington Post correspondent who was less than 30 yards away, driving onto the bridge and toward the Humvee. Although none of the Humvee's occupants were killed, the incident illustrates how resistance attacks have become an everyday occurrence for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Because the blast did not result in a death or serious injury, it was not mentioned to reporters by the U.S. military's public information office here. But military officials acknowledged that non-fatal attacks such as the mine explosion are far more widespread than daily casualty figures reflect.
"It's becoming routine," a U.S. military official said. "It's no longer a few isolated incidents."
U.S. troops"are facing stuff like this all the time," the official said.
Such incidents are of growing concern to military commanders, who express fear that assailants will learn from their failures and improve tactics. Military officials also are worried that a barrage of attacks that do not result in deaths -- estimated by officials here at more than a dozen a day in Baghdad -- will sap troop morale and cause people to reevaluate official pronouncements that armed resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq is small and militarily insignificant.
Three other incidents today wounded seven U.S. soldiers, the military said.
In Baghdad, two were wounded in another land mine attack, a military spokesman said, and two more when insurgents dropped a homemade bomb from a bridge onto a passing U.S. military convoy.
In the city of Kirkuk, about 175 miles north of the capital, assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a military convoy, wounding three servicemen. Military officials said soldiers in the convoy returned fire, but it was not immediately known if there were any Iraqi casualties.
The Associated Press reported that three Iraqis, including a 13-year-old boy, were killed by U.S. soldiers returning fire after a grenade attack on a police station in a Baghdad suburb.
Just who planted the mine on the Wedding Island Bridge remains a mystery, as does the question of whether the device was triggered by remote control or was placed in such a way that it would be triggered by a vehicle crossing the bridge. If it was not remotely set off, it could suggest that the soldiers' routine was observed and the mine was embedded in the median with the belief that the next vehicle to cross the usually quiet concrete structure would be a Humvee.
While vehicle traffic over the bridge is light, the area is far from abandoned. This morning, a dozen children were playing along the embankment, running into a dry creek that feeds into the nearby Tigris River. Kebab vendors were setting up their roadside stalls. Maintenance workers were building a new fence.
None of them said they saw who buried the mine. And even if they did, several said, they would not identify the person to U.S. forces.
"This kind of attack is good for the Iraqi people," insisted Khudier Abbas, 39, a food vendor along the Tigris. "The Americans have been here for four months. What have they done for us?"
Then he stuck his hand into his pocket and fished out a few pieces of candy -- a piece of yellow butterscotch and pink bubblegum. "This is all the Americans have given me," he said with a harrumph. "They think this will make us happy?"
The soldiers in the Humvees were members of the 40th Engineer Battalion of the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division. Based in Germany, the unit has been blowing up unused Iraqi weapons and ammunition.
Their translator, Hassan Hamrun, a lanky man with a wide-brimmed hat who was traveling in the second Humvee, said he suspected one of his neighbors might have been involved.
The neighbor, whom Hamrun did not identify, had been active in former president Saddam Hussein's intelligence service and bragged about his friendship with Hussein's elder son, Uday, Hamrun said. In recent days, Hamrun said his neighbor had threatened to attack Americans and Iraqis cooperating with U.S. forces.
This morning, he said, the neighbor was not in his house. "It is very suspicious," Hamrun said.
Vexed by the increasing attacks on military personnel, the U.S.-led occupation authority said it would offer a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone who kills or shoots at a foreign soldier or Iraqi policeman.
"I urge the Iraqi people to come forward to take these people off the streets of the country," said former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who is in charge of Baghdad's police force.
Last week, the occupation authority offered a $25 million reward for the capture of Hussein or the confirmation of his death.
Arab television channels today broadcast what they said was a new audio tape made by Hussein. The voice in the recording could not be confirmed as Hussein's, but people familiar with his voice said it sounded authentic. On Monday, CIA analysts said another tape broadcast by the al-Jazeera news station was "most likely" made by Hussein.
"Returning to covert attacks is the appropriate means for resistance," said the voice on one of the tapes, which was broadcast by Lebanon's Al Hayat-LBC channel. "Your main mission, Iraqis, is to evict the invaders from Iraqi territory."
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator of Iraq, insisted that Hussein's "days in Iraq are finished."
"He may be alive, but he is not coming back," Bremer said at a news conference. "I think the noose is going to tighten around his neck."
But Bremer acknowledged that the release of additional tapes purportedly from Hussein could encourage attacks on U.S. forces. The fact that Hussein has not been captured or killed, he said, "gives these die-hard elements to opportunity to say to other people that Saddam is going to come back."
Bremer said the recent attacks on U.S. forces, while conducted with "considerable professionalism," do not appear to be coordinated by one person or group. "There is no central command and control," he said.
He said the fatal, point-blank shooting of a soldier on the campus of Baghdad University was the eighth incident that involved a shot to the neck area, above the soldier's flak jacket but below the helmet. "There's an element of professionalism," he said.