Sunday, August 24, 2003

BAGHDAD — Two car bombs and a series of attacks on the infrastructure this month have undercut popular support for those attacking coalition forces in Iraq, with many residents saying for the first time the resistance may be more than a homegrown nationalist movement.

“We have been reluctant to believe much of what the Americans say, but the more we look around, the more we can say, ‘Maybe there is some truth into what they say’” said Shermine Abul Hassan, a Baghdad resident who described herself as “strongly anti-American.”

U.S. authorities have warned for weeks that foreign terrorists are seeking to exploit postwar instability to gain a foothold in Iraq. “We are now seeing a large number of international terrorists coming into Iraq,” chief administrator L. Paul Bremer said on ABC television yesterday.

The growing popular acceptance of that fact is serving to undermine the sense among many Iraqis that the resistance to the U.S.-led occupation is a legitimate nationalist struggle against foreign invaders.

“Iraq has had a long history of fighting foreigners and fighting for its own rights. Two things matter most in this country — God and country,” said one elderly man in Baghdad. “We don’t need anyone’s help.”

Miss Abul Hassan said she has been forced to reconsider her views because of the nature of the attacks and targets she has witnessed in the past few weeks.

“In Iraq when the government did not like something you did, they would just arrest you, torture you and kill you,” she said. “Maybe they cannot arrest you and torture you anymore, but the first instinct of people here would be to shoot you.”

She said she found it unlikely those same people would be behind this month’s car bomb attacks in front of the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, where more than 1,000 pounds of explosives killed 23 persons, including chief U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello. Car bombs were unheard of in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The attack on the United Nations was a turning point for many Iraqis, despite mixed feelings over the close relationship Mr. Vieira de Mello had maintained with U.S. authorities and the U.S.-picked Governing Council.

Because of international sanctions, the world body had for years been the main source of food and other supplies for a majority of Iraqis, and it is widely perceived to have played a positive role.

“I don’t like my country being occupied, by the Americans, the British or anyone else. But we benefited a lot in the past few years from the United Nations and do not see a reason why they should be attacked,” said Samir Shehada, a Shi’ite Muslim from the southern city of Najaf who has been living in Baghdad for 20 years.

“Yes, the U.N. probably made a mistake in so openly siding with the Americans, but we don’t support attacking the U.N. and looking at it like it is an extension of the coalition forces,” he said.

Another agency that has been helping the Iraqi people — the International Committee of the Red Cross — announced yesterday it was cutting back on staff in the country because of warnings it has been targeted for attack.

“It seems some groups are not willing to let us work normally,” said spokeswoman Nada Doumani, who told the Associated Press the threat was not specific. “We are very upset because our services are badly needed,” she said.

Even before the attack on the United Nations, Baghdad residents were redirecting some of their anger from the U.S.-led coalition to the saboteurs who were interrupting efforts to restore regular electricity and who knocked out water supplies to the capital a week ago.

“We are used to seeing Americans getting shot at but now we are getting targeted,” said Ahmed Abdehamid, 21, outside his house in an upper-class neighborhood.

“I heard the water pipe explosion. We had to fill a bucket from a dripping tap in the garden to wash ourselves for our prayers. I think terrorists are now flourishing in Iraq. This is the work of al Qaeda,” Mr. Abdehamid told a London Daily Telegraph reporter.

Another man, Ammar Muhammed, 23, told the Telegraph: “Saddam feels betrayed by the Iraqi people. Now he wants to hurt us as well as the Americans. He has sent his people to attack us.”

The presence of foreign terrorists on Iraqi soil is not new. Saddam hosted a number of such groups in the 1970s and 1980s but few ordinary Iraqis knew anything about it.

Palestinian terrorist mastermind Abu Nidal was found dead last year in Baghdad, where officials said he had committed suicide although his body showed multiple gunshots wounds to the head.

The most prominent prewar terrorist group was Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda-linked fundamentalist group of about 1,000 men who had camped near the Iranian border in the northern “no-fly zone” patrolled by U.S. and British aircraft.

U.S. forces attacked the group during the war, killing many of them and scattering the rest into Iran. Mr. Bremer and his advisers say some of them have filtered back into Iraq and may be responsible for one or both car bombs.

U.S. officials also have accused Syria of either directly allowing terrorists to move into Iraq through its territory or turning a blind eye to the cross-border movements.

Saudi officials, meanwhile, believe some 3,000 fundamentalists have left that country in the past month and many may have moved to Iraq.

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