suffer the little soldiers

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    Surge of attacks claims US life in Shia city

    Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor
    Satyrday June 28, 2003
    The Guardian

    An American soldier has been killed in Najaf, one of the holiest cities for Shia Muslims, the US authorities said yesterday.

    Two more US servicemen were missing last night, apparently abducted from their vehicle somewhere north of Baghdad.

    Another soldier was shot in the neck as he shopped for video compact discs in the city. There were unconfirmed reports that he was dead.

    In a week that has seen a big rise in action against coalition troops, the Najaf killing is particularly ominous because it took place in a Shia area.

    Almost all the previous attacks on the coalition forces since President George Bush formally declared on May 1 that combat had ended have been confined to the Sunni Muslim areas in and around Baghdad.

    US troops have felt relatively safe in Shia areas such as Najaf, which suffered badly under Saddam Hussein and initially welcomed the US presence.

    The Shia, who have remained benign until this week, are the biggest religious community Iraq.

    US central command said the soldier, from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, had been investigating a car theft.

    The death, combined with the killing of six British soldiers in another Shia area, near Amara in southern Iraq, could turn out to be isolated incidents. But the fear is that the situation is becoming more unstable and dangerous.

    Twenty-one American soldiers have been killed since May 1, and there have been a number of acts of sabotage against oil fields which the US has blamed on "rogue elements" from Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.

    Shia clerics and militants warned after the war that while they welcomed US liberation from Saddam Hussein the liberators should not overstay their welcome: occupation lasting beyond a few months was not acceptable.

    US central command continued to insist yesterday that it had detected no organised resistance to the US and British forces, and portrayed the attacks as unconnected.

    But a graph plotting the number of attacks since the beginning of May would show an escalation in incidents.

    A series of attacks in various parts of Iraq on the same day as the Najaf killing resulted in the death of two other US soldiers.

    The previous day two US soldiers on guard duty at Balad north of Baghdad went missing, and are presumed abducted or killed. The US authorities were questioning three Iraqis about the alleged abduction yesterday.

    Other US soldiers were wounded yesterday when a truck carrying them to Baghdad to phone their families hit an explosive device.

    US central command blames remnants of Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen and Ba'ath party members, but the increase in attacks is also a direct response to US tactics.

    In the hunt for pockets of resistance the US troops are going in hard, especially against pro-Saddam villages to the north of Baghdad.

    Iraq is a dangerous place to alienate the local population, which is one of the most militarised in the world. Most men have had military training, and many of them saw action in the ferocious Iran-Iraq war, and remain armed.

    The attacks on US forces have involved rocket-propelled grenades and extremely accurate shootings, which suggest the work of trained snipers.

    In the south, where the six British military policemen died, the Shia militias who fought against Saddam Hussein also remain heavily armed.

    In their war against Saddam, fought in the marshes, they were capable of shooting down Iraqi army helicopters and ambushing sizeable army units.

    Although the US force may look strong on paper, it is over stretched. There are only 12,000 soldiers available to patrol in and around Baghdad, a city of about six million people, and no effective police force.
 
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