Attack on US tank brings post-war death toll to 117

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The Independent Online

Two American soldiers were killed yesterday when their Abrams battle tank was blown up by guerrillas north of Baghdad. That brings the number of US troops killed in Iraq since President Bush declared conflict over to 117, exceeding the number killed in the war itself.

The 68-ton M1 Abrams tank fell victim to a roadside bomb or a mine near Balad, a market town 75 miles from Baghdad, in the first incident that a US Army main battle tank has been disabled since the war officially ended. A third crewman was seriously injured and flown to hospital in Germany.

Attacks by anti-American guerrillas, who last Sunday fired rockets into al-Rashid Hotel where hundreds of US officials are living, are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated. US officials said the average number of anti-US attacks had reached 33 a day in the past week. This is more than a 50 per cent increase on the levels of early September.

They are also spreading into a wider area of Iraq. Seven Ukrainian soldiers, part of the 1,650-strong Ukrainian contingent, were wounded when two of their vehicles hit mines, and gunmen opened fire on them at Suwayrah south of Baghdad, a district previously quiet.

The guerrilla war is mostly in Sunni areas west and north of the capital but a leading member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has warned that the real danger is the growing anger of ordinary Iraqis towards Americans. Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish opponent of Saddam Hussein, told The Independent: "Day by day, the Iraqi people are getting more hostile to the Americans. The majority don't like them." He said the main reasons for this were the continuing lack of security and the fact that 70 to 75 per cent of Iraqis were unemployed.

He accused officials of the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, whose headquarters is in a highly fortified former palace of Saddam Hussein, of being wholly out of touch with the feelings of ordinary Iraqis, whom they never meet. He asked despairingly: "How can you rule the country from behind those high walls?"

He said he had asked Paul Wolfowitz, the visiting US deputy defence secretary, last weekend to meet Iraqis belonging to the Governing Council or even visit the street to talk to ordinary Iraqis to find out the real situation but "he said he was too busy".

Mr Othman is baffled why, seven months after the overthrow of Saddam, America has not succeeded in reopening the airport or opening a satellite television station. Iraqis get their news from Arab satellite channels hostile to the US and its Iraqi allies.

Iraqis working for the US-controlled administration or local security organisations are increasingly being selected for attack. Eight policemen were killed when suicide bombers hit four police stations in Baghdad on Monday. At al-Khadra police station, Amr Rashid, a policeman cradling his submachine-gun as he stood beside a deep crater where a car exploded, said: "They are asking me to risk my life and I am only getting $120 a month." There is a growing sense of crisis among Iraqis in Baghdad caused by the attack on al-Rashid, with a belief that Iraq is entering a period of prolonged turmoil because America has no answer to rising attacks by resistance forces.

The entry into Iraq of groups wanting to attack America and its allies is impossible to stop because of the country's long borders, which even Saddam was unable to seal effectively.

Proposals for restoring security include recalling the 350,000-strong Iraqi army. Ghassan Atiyyah, a distinguished Iraqi historian long active in opposition to Saddam who passed a death sentence on him, said: "The US must swallow its pride and bring back the army."

Mr Atiyyah said that by disbanding the army in May, America had in effect turned the Sunni Muslim community, former rulers of Iraq, into second- class citizens He added: "The Sunni have the strength to permanently destabilise the country, just as the Kurds did."

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