As Violence Deepens, So Does Pessimism
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, May 17 -- With stunning brazenness, pinpoint timing and devastating force, the suicide car bomber who killed the head of Iraq's Governing Council on Monday gave shape to a feeling among Iraqi and U.S. officials and common citizens that the country is almost unmanageable.
With the transfer of limited powers to a new Iraqi government scheduled to take place in six weeks, U.S. and allied forces have been unable to eradicate threats to Iraq's stability, and no one has predicted a reduction in violence before the June 30 handover.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to create the caretaker government that will assume authority, but on Monday debate over the details of his plan took a back seat to a more basic question: If Iraq's titular president, Izzedin Salim, can be blown up at the gates of occupation headquarters, what kind of country is being handed over to Iraqis?
"We could not imagine the deterioration leading to such a point. It's getting worse day after day, and no one has been able to put an end to it. Who is going to protect the next government, no matter what kind it is?" said Abdul Jalil Mohsen, a former Iraqi general and member of the Iraqi National Accord, a prominent party represented on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which Salim headed this month under a rotating system.
"There's no question: A small band of people can paralyze the country," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the council. "They are armed and organized and this is the difficulty. The people who did this have no respect for anything of value. It's a real danger to Iraq, the Iraqis and to an agenda to achieve any kind of democracy."
Inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified U.S. administration compound that Salim was about to enter when the suicide bomber struck, expectations are grim. "It will take a lot of doing for this not to end in a debacle," a senior occupation official said. "There is no confidence in the coalition. Why should there be?"
On Baghdad's hot and dusty streets, Iraqi working people also expressed a deep sense of pessimism. "Our country is at a loss. I don't think that even after the handover the government will control things," said Ali Fakhri, who owns a fabric store in the Kadhimiya district.
"Just look around," said Bakran Ohan, who sells baby clothes. "Do you see any police? Any soldiers? There is a complete lack of security. It won't change from day to night on June 30."
Salim's death was a high-profile reminder of the broader violence affecting Iraq. Central Iraq, home to a long-running revolt by Sunni Muslims, is plagued by daily roadside bombings, occasional car bombings and frequent assassinations of Iraqis working with the U.S.-led administration. To the south, frequent clashes over the past six weeks have pitted U.S. and allied forces against a persistent insurgency led by Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. Fighting has all but paralyzed several southern cities.
Hostile bands operate freely in cities that straddle the main routes in and out of Baghdad. Foreigners who travel Iraqi roads run the risk of being kidnapped, and reconstruction projects in many parts of the country have come to a standstill.
Car bombs have been used repeatedly with devastating effect in Baghdad and other parts of the country since August, when the first of them destroyed the Jordanian Embassy. Since then, targets have included the U.N. headquarters, Red Cross headquarters, several police stations and two entrances to the Green Zone.
U.S. officials say assassinations and attacks on government buildings are designed to drive a wedge between the occupation authority and Iraqi citizens. When the Iraqi National Accord issued a letter of condolence after Salim's slaying, it noted that six of its members have been killed over the past six months. Salim is the second Governing Council member to be killed since the group's formation last summer.
Since late April, the Iraqi press has reported at least a dozen attempts to kill Iraqis working -- or suspected of working -- with the Americans. On April 28 in Baghdad, a mob hanged three men, each accused of working "as a spy for the enemies of Islam," according to a message left at their feet. The next day, gunmen shot an employee of Baghdad's Sadr City district town hall at his home. The assailants left a letter in his pocket warning against holding a funeral. On May 8, gunmen in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, killed the head of the town council as he drove on a main street. Farther south in Samawah the next day, gunmen ran the car of the deputy mayor off the road and shot him and three passengers.
Last week, a man in a red mask put a stick of dynamite at the door of a local tribal leader, Roukan Mughier Atwan. It exploded while Atwan was trying to douse it with water, killing him and one of his daughters. Atwan had met with U.S. officials, part of consultations that military authorities try to carry on with traditional leaders; his brother, Thayer, said a letter had been posted nearby promising death to anyone who helped the Americans.
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