U.S. Says It Hit Terror Targets, but Iraqi Civilians Disagree

By EDWARD WONG

New York Times

October 13, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 12 The American military staged a series of aggressive strikes today in insurgent strongholds west of Baghdad, including firing missiles into the streets of Falluja and conducting raids alongside Iraqi commandos in seven mosques in Ramadi.

The wave of assaults inflamed Sunni Muslim leaders and residents of the cities, who said innocent civilians were killed or arrested in the operations.

Warplanes attacked twice in Falluja in the early hours, with the first strike demolishing one of Iraq's most celebrated kabob restaurants, Haji Hussein, named after the owner. Mr. Hussein's son and his nephew, both working as night watchmen, were killed in the attack, residents said. The second attack took place about four hours later in another neighborhood, hitting an empty house and injuring two neighbors, nearby residents said.

The American military issued a statement asserting that the first target was a meeting place for insurgents associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who leads a network that has taken responsibility for numerous attacks on American and Iraqi security forces, as well as for the beheadings of Western hostages. As for the second attack, it said missiles had been aimed at a safehouse used by the Zarqawi network. "Intelligence sources tracked and confirmed that Zarqawi associates were using the safehouse at the time of the strike," the military said.

In nearby Ramadi, the seat of restive Anbar Province, American troops and Iraqi soldiers arrested a Sunni cleric, Sheik Abdul Aleem Saidy, and his son Osama, both members of one of the country's most famous religious families, according to spokesmen for the Muslim Scholars Association, a prominent group of mostly Sunni clerics. Among the Iraqi soldiers involved in the mosque raids were former Kurdish and Shiite militiamen, one of the spokesmen, Abdul Satter Abdul Jabbar, said. "There is a sense of sectarianism in this," he said.

American commanders have in the recent past deployed units of the Iraqi National Guard that are made up of militiamen recruited from political parties representing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Last April, during a two-front uprising across western and southern Iraq, marines in Falluja fought alongside the Iraqi National Guard's 36th Battalion, which has fighters recruited from Kurdish and Shiite political parties. The battalion reportedly fought well, but the use of such units has raised the ire of Sunnis.

The attacks today came as the American military was trying to put rebel-held territory around the country, especially the hotspots of Anbar Province, under control to prepare for general elections scheduled in January. A wide voter turnout, even in areas hostile to the American occupation, is needed to ensure a sense of legitimacy. American officials have said they could very well invade Ramadi and Falluja, the most intractable cities, but may hold off until after the American presidential elections in early November.

In the southern holy city of Najaf, the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, issued a statement from calling for all Iraqis qualified to vote to properly register for the elections. The ayatollah also called on Iraqi leaders to organize committees in neighborhoods to help register voters.

Ayatollah Sistani has been one of the strongest proponents of popular elections in Iraq, pushing for the American government and the United Nations to honor the January timetable. Because Shiite Muslims make up at least 60 percent of the country's population, Shiite candidates will presumably dominate the elections and take over control of the region, which has been run by Sunnis since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Various Shiite groups are already jockeying to put together slates of candidates and win backing from prominent religious leaders such as Ayatollah Sistani and Moktada al-Sadr, a popular anti-American cleric.

Ayatollah Sistani asserted in his statement that neighborhood committees should help people register for "the election that we hope will be held at the scheduled time and will be free and honest, based on the participation of all Iraqis."

In Sadr City, a vast slum in northeastern Baghdad, people continued selling heavy weapons to Iraqi security forces at three police stations, as part of an amnesty agreement between the organization of Mr. Sadr and Iraqi and American officials. The weapons purchase program began on Monday and is to run until Friday. After weeks of having his militia, the Mahdi Army, pounded by the American military, Mr. Sadr has agreed through his aides to disarm it.

Mr. Sadr has made such promises before but broken them by reigniting attacks against American soldiers and Iraqi security forces. This time, though, his aides say he is serious about trying to get involved in a legitimate political process, especially given the short timetable before the scheduled elections. He commands enormous support throughout the south and especially among the 2.2 million people of Sadr City, and could play a significant role in any popular election.

The American military said today that soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division handed out 300 frozen chickens to residents of Sadr City one day last week. The military said in a statement that the soldiers drove up to a "major thoroughfare" with boxes of frozen chicken and began opening them, attracting swarms of impoverished children. After a half-hour, "all that was left were empty boxes, most shredded by the groping hands of the Iraqi children," the military said.

In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen fatally shot a provincial council member, Abdul Majid al-Antar, and his driver as Mr. Antar was going to work, police and health officials said.

Marines in Ramadi said the mosque raids today came after insurgents had repeatedly used mosques as shelters or as staging areas for attacks. The most recent incident occurred on Monday afternoon, when guerrillas fired at marines and Iraqi National Guardsmen from a mosque in the nearby town of Hit, the First Marine Division said in a statement. After a three-hour exchange of gunfire, the division said, the marines launched an airstrike that dropped "precision-guided munitions" on the mosque.

"It's a very bad situation in Ramadi," Muhammad Bashar al-Fadhi, a spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, said in an interview. "The Americans are just arresting whoever is in front of them at the mosques. They're behaving in a strange manner."