Slaughter in the rush hour as suicide bombs leave at least 35 dead

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 28 October 2003 01:00

In just forty-five minutes during the Baghdad morning rush hour, suicide bombers struck four times yesterday, slaughtering at least 35 and injuring 224 in the bloodiest day in the Iraqi capital since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The bombers marked the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by hitting the Red Cross headquarters ­ using an ambulance packed with explosives ­ and by launching co-ordinated attacks against four police stations.

It was a measured hardening of the tactics of resistance, and came 24 hours after a rocket attack on al-Rashid Hotel where senior US officials, including Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defence secretary, were staying.

The carnage showed how America has failed to gain control of Iraq six months after its invasion. It also signalled a decisive moment in the Iraqi crisis, which has become the supreme test of Washington's power in the world. Three months ago, the US occupation seemed evenly balanced between success and failure. Today, it is hard to see how it can succeed.

The first distant thunder of a bomb detonating outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross echoed across Baghdad at about 8.30am. Seconds earlier, an ambulance had sped towards the building, before exploding. The blast killed two security guards and eight labourers passing in a lorry.

Minutes later, explosions reverberated at different points around Baghdad as suicide bombers blew themselves up outside three police stations. In the most lethal assault, at al-Bayaa police station in the al-Doura region, a blast killed 15 people including a US soldier. In the Shaab district in the north-east of the capital at least eight people died.

Outside a fourth police station an unsuccessful bomber was dragged from his vehicle outside a police station as he shouted: "Death to the Iraqi police! You're all collaborators!" He was later identified as a Syrian.

"There are indicators that certainly these attacks have a mode of operation of foreign fighters," said Brigadier General Mark Hertling of the US Army's 1st Armoured Division.

President George Bush claimed yesterday: "The more progress we make on the ground ... the more desperate these killers become."

But the concrete face of al-Rashid Hotel ­ the most visible symbol of the US presence in Baghdad ­ is now chipped and scarred by the explosion two days ago. A shaken-looking Mr Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the invasion, was forced to scurry from the hotel, followed by other US officials in pyjamas and underpants.

Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad yesterday had very different ideas from Mr Bush.

All, without exception, approved of the attacks on the hotel and US soldiers, but not the suicide bombings because Iraqis were the victims.

Omar Qais Zaki, 26, said: "I support the attack on al-Rashid but not the others, which only kill Iraqis. The Americans should leave immediately and we should have elections."

Ahmed, a car mechanic, said: "I was happy when I hear about al-Rashid, but not these latest attacks." Mohammed Abu Zahra, owner of a car repair business, said: "Everything that has happened in the past six months shows the Americans cannot protect themselves. The only thing that might make it better for them is if they captured Saddam."

Meanwhile, the guerrilla attacks north of Baghdad in Sunni Muslim areas are increasing in number and sophistication.

Crucially, over the past few months there has been a shift in Iraqi opinion that bodes ill for the future of the United States and its allies in Iraq. At the time of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis were evenly divided on whether they had been liberated or were facing an old-style colonial occupation. The majority had always hated Saddam Hussein's brutal regime.

Just after the invasion, 43 per cent saw the US-led Allies as "liberating forces." A poll earlier this month showed that 15 per cent now see the Americans as liberators. Iraqis who see them as occupiers have risen from 46 per cent to 67 per cent.

During the past three weeks, I have driven over much of Iraq. Hatred of the occupation is expressed openly. In the town of Baiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad, demonstrators were waving pictures of Saddam Hussein and singing his praises. In Hawaija, west of Kirkuk, the American campaign to root out Baath party members has led to the dismissal of 14 of 18 doctors in the local hospital as well as 200 teachers.

These are both Sunni Arab towns on the Tigris river that did well under Saddam Hussein. They might be expected to be hostile. But a wealthy Shia businessman in Baghdad told me that "the Shia are thinking more and more like the Sunni these days. They really hate the occupation."

The only Iraqi community that welcomes the occupation is the Kurds who have been able to extend their territory in the north of the country

In London last night, Tony Blair's spokesman called the attacks "evil and wicked".

But the British Government has not yet demonstrated it understands the pace at which the situation in Iraq is deteriorating. Because of the battles over the failure to find WMD, the simpler point is missed: that the Government, Downing Street and the intelligence services were woefully ill-informed about what was happening in Iraq last year.

If Mr Blair and his ministers believe what they say about resistance being the work of a handful of Saddam's supporters, they are as ignorant now on Iraq as they ever were.

It did not have to happen in this way. Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow.

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