- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqis shrugged off President Bush’s speech outlining his strategy to win the war, pointing at the brief takeover by hooded gunmen yesterday of the western city of Ramadi.

But Iraqis interviewed yesterday also insisted that American troops had to stay in Iraq to prevent civil war.

A group of about 300 insurgents took over the streets of Ramadi, the capital of the restive province of Anbar, west of Bagdhad, for several hours, one eyewitness told The Washington Times.

“It was easy for them to take Ramadi,” said the witness who asked to be identified only by his first name, Hamid.

“It was like a message to the American and Iraqi forces, to show their power, their ability to take a city,” Hamid said by telephone, speaking through an interpreter.

An Associated Press Television News video showed the insurgents walking down a shuttered market street and a residential neighborhood, as well as firing four mortar rounds.

The masked men appeared relaxed, and the U.S. command dismissed the video as little more than a publicity stunt.

The U.S. military also dismissed reports that the insurgents had carried out widespread attacks yesterday against U.S. and Iraqi installations in Ramadi, saying only one rocket-propelled grenade was fired against an observation post, the AP reported.

On nightly news shows yesterday, Iraqis watched excerpts of Mr. Bush’s Tuesday speech, in which the president vowed that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq “as long as necessary to complete the mission.”

But the topic of conversation among several Iraqis interviewed yesterday was the daily kidnappings of Iraqis and executions by armed militias.

One mixed Shi’ite-Sunni family that watched the news dismissed Mr. Bush’s words.

“My mother just said, ‘He is stupid, I don’t like him,’ and my sister said she felt better with Saddam in power because although it was a hard regime, it was organized,” said Ahmed, a Sunni in his 40s, whose sisters married Shi’ites.

“Most people don’t believe Bush. Always he says he will fight terrorism, but there is never any change. Look at what happened in Ramadi,” Ahmed said.

Nevertheless, Ahmed said it would be a mistake for American forces to abruptly withdraw.

“But everyone says it is not good that the American forces leave at this time. It would be civil war,” he said.

The action in Ramadi came as U.S. officials deemed a recent series of offensives in the area successful — especially in cutting off the flow of suicide bombers from other Arab countries.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters that suicide bombings fell to 23 in November, which he attributed to successful U.S.-Iraqi military operations against insurgent strongholds in the Euphrates River Valley west of the capital.

“His weapon of choice is suicide bombers,” Gen. Lynch said of the terrorists. “In the month of November, only 23 suicide attacks; the lowest we’ve seen in the last seven months, the direct result of the effectiveness of our operations.”

Nevertheless, Gen. Lynch warned that al Qaeda in Iraq will likely step up attacks in the next two weeks to try to disrupt parliamentary elections Dec. 15.

Insurgent activity in Ramadi, a turbulent city 70 miles west of Baghdad, appeared to be an effort to divert attention from a meeting between U.S. officials and local tribal leaders.

Police Lt. Mohammed al-Obaidi said at least four mortar rounds fell near the U.S. base on the eastern edge of the city, but there were no reports of casualties. U.S. officials disputed the report, saying only one grenade was launched.

In other developments yesterday:

• Iraq’s interior minister fired his top official for human rights in connection with an investigation of torture at a secret prison that was recently discovered by U.S. forces.

• Gunmen in Baghdad attacked Saad al-Obeidi, an adviser to Iraq’s defense minister, seriously wounding him along with two of his bodyguards, police said.

• The U.S. command said four American service members had been killed, three of them by hostile action and the fourth in a traffic accident west of the capital. All deaths occurred Wednesday. The latest deaths raised the U.S. fatality toll for November to at least 85.

• There was no word yesterday on the fate of five Westerners taken hostage during the past week. The five include four aid workers, one an American, from the group Christian Peacemaker Teams.

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