Military Reports New Attack on Contractors


The New York Times

Published: June 15, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 15 - Gunmen opened fire on a three-vehicle convoy carrying contractors working for the American-led administration in Iraq today, striking two of the vehicles with gunfire, a United States military spokesman said.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said in a briefing here that the attackers had fired from a bridge spanning a road near Baghdad airport, but he said he could not yet confirm any deaths.

"We don't have the full report yet, but we have a preliminary report that said yes, there was an attack, small-arms fire attack shot from the overpass against three vehicles passing," General Kimmitt said.

The third of the three vehicles managed to reach a military base, Mr. Kimmitt said. According to a preliminary report based on the descriptions of the "fairly shaken up contractors" in the third vehicle, he said, it was the contractors' judgment "that there may have been some people killed."

But he said he could not provide the contractors' nationalities. Vehicles carrying foreign contractors have repeatedly come under attack in Iraq, often on the road to Baghdad's airport.

The attack comes after one of the deadliest days in Iraq in the past month. On Monday, a suicide bomber rammed a truck packed with explosives into a convoy of foreign contractors, killing at least 13 people in a busy Baghdad neighborhood. Around the same time, two more bombs went off, one south of the capital, one north, claiming eight more lives.

One American, two Britons, a French citizen and a Filipino were killed in the Baghdad bombing, military officials said. Three were General Electric employees working on power plants in Iraq, and two were their security guards. Iraqi officials said dozens of Iraqis were wounded in the attack, in addition to the eight Iraqi civilians who were killed.

Iyad Allawi, Iraq's designated prime minister, called a news conference on Monday to express his outrage at the violence. "These people were helping to rebuild our country," he said.

American officials said the bombings were part of a well-organized campaign to derail the June 30 transfer of authority. The officials have repeatedly warned of major terrorist strikes in the days leading up to June 30, and more than 80 people have been killed in the past two weeks in a rash of bombings and assassinations.

Yet even as the violence is peaking in Iraq, American forces are deferring, more and more each day, to Iraqi security services. Much of the political handover has already happened, and American officials say it is now important to allow Iraqi security services to play a bigger role. As a result, a power vacuum seems to be forming.

On Monday, for example, minutes after the Baghdad bombing, a crowd of young men flooded into the streets and rushed toward the wreckage of the convoy.

As more than 50 Iraqi police officers stood by, the mob stomped on the hoods of the crushed vehicles, doused them with kerosene and set them alight, sparking a huge fireball in the middle of a crowded neighborhood. Even as angry men ran past them, slipping through police lines to hurl bricks at a squad of American soldiers, few of the Iraqi police officers intervened.

"What are we to do?" asked an Iraqi police lieutenant, Wisam Deab. "If we try to stop them, they will think we are helping the Americans. Then they will turn on us."

The crowd became increasingly hostile, with one man shaking a severed finger, apparently from one of the people killed by the bombing, at a British reporter.

Arab news crews broadcast the mayhem, reinforcing the image of Iraq as a country skidding toward chaos. In Baghdad, the rumble of explosions has become almost like a morning alarm clock. Many of the bombs go off between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. to inflict the maximum number of casualties.

American and Iraqi officials say they are improving security cooperation in the days before June 30, sharing more intelligence and running more joint operations. But at the Baghdad bombing on Monday, there was very little communication between the sides. As clouds of black smoke boiled up from the street and the mob grew more and more unruly, American soldiers waited in their Humvees 50 yards behind Iraqi police officers, with neither group talking much with the other.

"The Americans say we are working together," said one police colonel who asked not to be identified. "But I am confused. Nobody is in control here."

Gary Sheffer, a spokesman for General Electric, said the company had been operating safely in Iraq for the better part of a year and would continue to do business there. "We have no intention of pulling our people out," he said.

There have been at least 12 car bombings since June 1, and usually both American soldiers and Iraqi police officers respond to the attacks. But a certain pattern is emerging. As soon as the American soldiers roll in, with their armored Humvees and swiveling guns, the crowds scatter. When the troops back off, no matter how many Iraqi police officers are there, the mobs return, in greater numbers.

General Kimmitt said the Iraqi authorities were responsible for day-to-day public security in Baghdad.

"The Iraqi Police Service personnel feel that they have the situation under control," he said. "We remain ready to support if asked."

So far, the American military has fielded a security force of more than 215,000 Iraqis. Advisers have even formed an all-Iraqi counterinsurgency force and trained them in guerrilla tactics like ambushing trucks and camouflaging themselves as trees. But many American commanders, usually in private, concede that the Iraqi forces are not up to scratch.

"I think we've been focused more on quantity than quality," said one high-ranking American officer. "There's a realization out there we still have a long way to go."