US general survives bomb attack by insurgents

The most senior American general in Iraq escaped death from a rocket-propelled grenade by seconds yesterday. General John Abizaid, the commander of all US forces in the Middle East, only just managed to get inside a heavily fortified Iraqi army base before an RPG landed outside the walls. The general and his entourage then had to take cover inside the base during the six-minute gun battle that followed.

It was a stark image of the power of the insurgency now sweeping Iraq, and America's inability to suppress it: the most senior US soldier in Iraq hunkered down in a sandbagged base while the bullets fly around him, 10 months into the American occupation.

An image as potent as that of Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the occupation, visibly scared before the cameras after a rocket attack on his hotel in Baghdad last October. But if General Abizaid had been killed in the attack, which came in Fallujah, the town which has come to symbolise Iraqi resistance, the consequences for the US admin- istration would have been far more serious than the loss of face it suffered yesterday.

General Abizaid is the third senior US official narrowly to escape death in an attack by insurgents in Iraq, after Mr Wolfowitz, and the American occupation administrator, Paul Bremer, whose convoy was attacked last December. General Abizaid, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf war, is of Lebanese origin and speaks Arabic.

Just as in the attacks on Mr Wolfowitz and Mr Bremer, it appeared the insurgents had received inside information as to where their target would be at a given time. American officials in Iraq sought to play down the possibility, admitting that RPG attacks on US forces and those Iraqis who work with them have become a very common occurrence in Fallujah these days.

But the timing of the attack was too impeccable to be a coincidence, coming just as a convoy carrying General Abizaid, who is not a frequent visitor to Fallujah, pulled into the Iraqi compound. And US defence officials in Washington said they believed it was likely that those behind the attack had been tipped off about the visit.

Moments after the convoy got inside the cinder-block walls, the first RPG landed, followed by two more and a barrage of rifle fire from a nearby mosque. American soldiers returned fire. No one was killed or seriously injured on the US side. General Abizaid and Major-General Swanack decided that a planned walkabout in the city was not such a good idea after all.

The attack capped three days of mayhem in Iraq, after consecutive suicide bombings on Tuesday and Wednesday left at least 100 Iraqis dead. The likelihood that inside information was involved in yesterday's attack has undercut American attempts to blame the suicide bombings on al-Qa'ida. Even if foreign militants were behind the attacks, tip-offs from the inside would suggest at least some Iraqi involvement.

As for any tip-off that led to the attack on General Abizaid, it may point to an even more worrying security breach for the Americans, inside their own ranks - or to one from the Iraqis working with them.

* Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said yesterday that Iraqis wanted direct elections but made it clear that they could not be organised by 30 June, the date Washington wants to relinquish power to an interim government in Baghdad. This could mean delaying the hand-over or finding another method of choosing a provisional government. Diplomats said that the American plan for a caucus system was virtually dead.

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