Scores Are Dead After Violence Spreads in Iraq

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

September 13, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 12 - In a series of tightly sequenced attacks, at least 25 Iraqis were killed by suicide car bombings and a barrage of missile and mortar fire in several neighborhoods across Baghdad on Sunday.

The attacks were the most widespread in months, seeming to demonstrate the growing power of the insurgency and heightening the sense of uncertainty and chaos in the capital at a time when American forces have already ceded control to insurgents in a number of cities outside of Baghdad.

The Associated Press reported that the total death toll throughout the country for the day reached 59, citing the Health Ministry and local authorities. Nearly 200 people were wounded, more than half of those in Baghdad.

Four suicide car bombings struck targets in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib, with two of them detonating nearly simultaneously and one hitting just outside the gates of the Abu Ghraib prison.

In Baghdad, American military helicopters fired at Iraqis who were scaling a burning American armored vehicle. It was unclear how many Iraqis were killed in the airstrike: at least one television journalist was confirmed dead, and photographs immediately after the strike showed a group of four men severely wounded or dead at the site. American military commanders said the helicopters were returning fire aimed at them from the ground.

American forces appear to be facing a guerrilla insurgency that is more sophisticated and more widespread than ever before. Last month, attacks on American forces reached their highest level since the war began, an average of 87 per day.

In a Sunday appearance on the NBC News program "Meet The Press," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged that the United States faced a "difficult time" in Iraq but had a plan to "bring it under control" before nationwide elections scheduled for January.

"It's not an impossible task," he said.

The violence, which began before dawn, all but paralyzed this country's capital city, where portions of several central highways were closed, and traffic slowed to a crawl.

Starting Saturday night, witnesses said, insurgents fired a series of mortar shells into the International Zone, a heavily fortified area in central Baghdad where the Iraqi government and the American Embassy are based. The area is often the target of mortar fire, but rarely has the bombardment been so persistent and intense. About a dozen rounds were fired into the area through the night, said Tahir Rahim, a Pakistani who works as a chef there.

"It was like an earthquake," said Mr. Rahim, who came to Iraq in July. "For months I was not scared, and today I woke up and thought maybe I made a mistake by coming here."

American officials were not immediately able to provide details on damage or casualties in the area on Sunday night.

As the mortar shells were still falling early this morning, a suicide bomber plowed into an American Bradley fighting vehicle on Haifa Street in central Baghdad, not far from the International Zone, the American military said. The vehicle was hit at 6:50 a.m. as it was traveling to the area to help American forces that had come under fire from insurgents there.

In all, six soldiers were wounded in the attack, including two crew members of the armored vehicle.

No Americans were killed, but the confusion that followed showed the difficult decisions commanders here face as they push ahead in this increasingly organized guerilla war.

After the attack, fighters and gleeful onlookers scaled the burning armored vehicle, said Hassan Lazim, assistant security director at nearby Karkh Hospital who said he saw the scene. Reuters reported that several young men had hung a black banner of the Unity and Jihad militant group, believed to be linked to Al Qaeda, on the barrel of the Bradley's main gun.

Helicopters that flew in to protect the Bradley were then fired on from the ground and fired back, the military said in a statement, adding that the aircraft then destroyed the armored vehicle as well. The helicopters "fired upon the anti-Iraqi forces and the Bradley, preventing the loss of sensitive equipment and weapons." The military stressed that the helicopters had not fired indiscriminately into the crowd, but said, "An unknown number of insurgents and Iraq civilians were wounded or killed in the incident."

In the fighting before and after the attack on the Bradley, 13 people were killed and 61 were wounded, the Iraqi Health Ministry said. A journalist for the Arabiya television network and a 12-year-old girl were among the dead, hospital officials said.

Al Arabiya showed compelling images that followed the journalist, Mazen al-Tumeizi, as he stumbled away from the scene of the airstrikes, yelling, "I'm dying, I'm dying!" More than 20 journalists have been killed here since the beginning of the American invasion.

"We can say there were innocent people who died," said Sabah Abud, head of emergency room statistics at Yarmouk Hospital, which received most of those wounded on Sunday.

The attacks kept coming. Yarmouk Hospital was a scene of panic shortly after noon, following another suicide bombing attack, this time on a convoy of Iraqi National Guard troops. Doctors worked frantically to get the injured on stretchers. A mother wailed for help for her son. A baby was rushed on an orange adult-sized stretcher to a surgery room.

"Everything had been calm, but today things got bad," Mr. Abud said. "We started getting people at 7 in the morning, and they are still coming."

Several hours before the attack on Iraqi troops, a driver detonated a car near a police checkpoint in the Amriya neighborhood. Three police officers were killed.

The sheer number of attacks left Iraqis here with a deep feeling of rage and helplessness.

"What can we do?" said Khalaf Shalesh, who was standing by the hospital bed of one of the wounded police officers. "We want to help Iraqis. But this keeps happening."

Another man, whose son was seriously injured Saturday night in a neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad that is between an American base and an insurgent hide-out, expressed similar frustrations.

"Rockets come from one side and Americans are on the other," said the father, Hassan Hamid. "We're a poor neighborhood, and it's getting destroyed. We don't want to fight."

A group claiming to be the Unity and Jihad claimed in a Web site posting that it had carried out the coordinated attacks on Sunday, including the mortar barrage and the bombs at Haifa Street and Abu Ghraib, The Associated Press reported. American officials believe that the group is led by Al Qaeda's point man in Iraq, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi.

The group boasted that it had the upper hand in the Iraqi insurgency and possessed the "capability to surprise the enemy and hit its strategic installations at the right time and place," The Associated Press reported the Web posting as stating.

The interim Iraqi government, for its part, said it had taken the initiative. Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said much of the violence on Sunday stemmed from Iraqi security raids on targets around Baghdad. He said 16 people had been arrested, according to a pool report provided by a reporter from an American newspaper. Haifa Street, however, was separate, he said.

"They were all Iraqis, all of them," Mr. Naqib said, according to the report. "They are Sunnis. This a war, so we have to get them."

Violence also flared in cities north and west of Baghdad. In Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad that is a hot spot in the Sunni insurgency, 10 people were killed and 40 wounded in fighting between American soldiers and insurgents, the authorities said.

In a significant advancement in the northern city of Tal Afar, where American forces have conducted airstrikes to try to eliminate foreign Arab fighters they say are there, American and Iraqi forces entered the city.

"This morning our forces went through the city and the city was calm," said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of American forces in the area, in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Mosul.

He said that about 200 insurgents had been killed, captured or driven off since the operation began this week and that the Iraqi civilian government was being reinstated.

The fate of two Italian aid workers taken hostage last week still remained unclear. On Sunday, a militant group called the Islamic Jihad Organization said it would kill the women in 24 hours if Italy did not withdraw its troops from Iraq.

It was unclear whether the group was connected to Islamic Jihad, one of the main militant groups opposing Israel, or if it even had custody of the hostages. A group calling itself the Zawahiri Loyalists claimed to be holding the women on Saturday.

Italy's Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that Foreign Minister Franco Frattini would fly to the Persian Gulf region this week to try to secure the release of the hostages, Reuters reported from Rome.