Clerics plead with guerrillas to think of civilians as US counter-attacks take toll

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

21 December 2003

Another former Baath party official was murdered in Najaf yesterday, the five-year-old son of another was shot dead, and three policemen were mistakenly killed by American troops south of Kirkuk. Life after Saddam's capture is beginning to sound depressingly like life before the ex-dictator was seized by US forces a week ago.

Many areas of Baghdad are now reduced to only six hours of electricity a day. Petrol lines stretch for three and a half miles around the city. Only in Samara, north of Baghdad, the scene of persistent guerrilla attacks on the US 4th Infantry Division over the past month, has fighting died down, because the Americans have soaked the city with troops and because local Sunni Muslim clergymen - appalled at the large number of civilians killed and wounded by US soldiers - have called upon the resistance movement not to stage ambushes in areas where civilians will be hurt.

Sheikh Ezzedin al-Rifai, a Samara cleric, issued a statement in which he called resistance a "legitimate act", but insisted that "it is a sin to attack Americans if these attacks lead to the destruction of property and the death and injury of children, the old and other civilians". The leader of the Alliance of Religious Scholars in Salahedin province, of which Samara is one of the largest cities, said that many young people, women and children had died during US counter-attacks against the resistance. The Americans welcomed the clerics' remarks, but ignored the obvious message: that US soldiers have been killing and wounding innocent civilians.

Sheikh al-Rifai complains that the Americans could restore calm if only they would end their aggressive house raids. "They arrest people and then they release them and say they are sorry," he said. An elderly woman died of a heart attack on Friday just after US troops had searched her home. "They were very polite and courteous," her daughter-in-law, Azhar al-Hayati, said of the Americans. "But my mother-in-law was so scared when she saw them."

The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, paid an unexpected visit yesterday to his country's 1,300 troops in Iraq, most of whom are based in the southern town of Diwaniyah. Ten Spaniards have died in Iraq since August, with the worst attack - an ambush in late November - leaving seven intelligence agents dead.

As Mr Aznar arrived, it emerged that the three policemen killed by the Americans at Sulieman Beg in the north-east of the country were mistakenly identified as bandits. They were manning a checkpoint just after midnight; two other policemen were wounded. There was no explanation from the Americans as to why they made such an error, which followed the killing of seven policemen by US troops near Fallujah earlier in the year. But many of the American-paid police in Iraq now wear black hoods over their faces, and are not even in uniform. Around Samara, pro-American Iraqi militiamen wear hoods and khaki trousers or jeans.

Up to five ex-Baath party officials are now being brought dead to the city morgue in Baghdad every day, and the Najaf killing followed the same pattern. Ali al-Tamimi, a district mayor at al-Furat, was sprayed with gunfire as he went shopping with a friend. A female ex-Baathist, Damiyah Abbas, was shot as she left her home in Najaf. Her five-year-old son died instantly and she was taken to hospital in a critical condition. Mrs Abbas was widely believed in Najaf to have participated in the suppression of the 1991 Shia Muslim uprising in southern Iraq. Mr al-Tamimi was thought to have been an informer.

The occupying authorities here, however, decline to provide any statistics on the large numbers of civilians killed in Iraq each week. The Pentagon said on Friday that 200 American soldiers had been killed in Iraqi attacks since President Bush's boastful declaration on 1 May that "major combat operations" were over. But since the start of the Anglo-American invasion, up to 9,700 Iraqi civilians have been killed.