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Cure 4 terrorism on tank barrel { July 14 2003 }

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Baath Party Holidays Invokes Fears of Escalating Attacks
Frustrated Citizens May Use Hussein Anniversary to Lash Back at U.S.

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 14, 2003; 3:45 PM

BAGHDAD -- Faez Khalil, a doughnut-soft merchant who sells guitars and keyboards, said he's a peaceful man. But he is fighting mad at U.S. troops occupying his country, and he's hoping that Iraqis strike back at them on Thursday, the 34th anniversary of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party taking power in Iraq.

"I hope there will be attacks on July 17 because we want to be freed from the Americans," said Khalil, 35, who said Iraqis are suffering more violence and hunger now than during Hussein's rule. "If I could, if I had a gun, I would participate."

Amid a spree of deadly and increasingly well organized attacks on U.S. soldiers here, U.S. military officials are concerned that Thursday's anniversary, which was celebrated as Iraq's national day during Hussein's reign, could be used for a symbolic escalation of the violence.

"I can't go into our plans, but we are aware that the 17th is like their independence day, like our July 4, and we are taking special precautions," said U.S. Army Sgt. John Konken, guarding a Baghdad street in a tank with "Cure 4 Terrorism" written on the barrel.

A senior U.S. military official here said today that a large sweep for armed insurgents that began over the weekend was intended, in part, as a "pre-emptive measure" in light of the holiday.

"We understand the significance of that day for a lot of bad people," the official said, adding that 226 people, including six who had been officials in former president Hussein's government, had been captured in the sweep, dubbed Operation Ivy Serpent.

This week is filled with potentially potent dates for anti-U.S. violence. Today is the anniversary of the 1968 overthrow of Iraq's last king and Wednesday is the day Hussein took over the presidency in 1979. But the most significant day for many Iraqis is July 17. Although Iraq's new governing council's first official action was to abolish Hussein-era holidays, July 17 still stands for Hussein in a country deeply unsure if the current military occupation is better than his dictatorship.

"This used to be my shop," Khalil said. "Now it is the Americans' shop. The whole city is the Americans'. Saddam made many mistakes, but he didn't hurt us as much as the Americans have."

The first violence of the new week came just before dawn today, when one U.S. soldier was killed and six were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the road to Baghdad's international airport, now headquarters for the U.S. militarys top brass.

It was unclear whether the attack was related to this week's anniversaries, and U.S. Army Sgt. James Thomas, of the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the first soldiers on the scene after the attack started, said the symbolic days would not affect his actions. "There's no difference between the 17th of July and the 4th of July," he said. "You stay a little more alert, that's all."

Standing a few feet away, Samir Obaidi, 22, a Baghdad University medical student, said the Americans should be careful on Thursday. "Of course there will be attacks," he said. "They shouldn't go outside. That is my advice."

In interviews in several neighborhoods around the city, Iraqis said Thursday could easily come and go with no more violence than usual. Rumors fly easily in this jittery capital, and often prove false, as with rumors that Hussein planned to stage a comeback offensive on his birthday, April 28. But many here said the Thursday holiday could be powerful motivation for people angry at the occupying troops.

"People hate July 17 because Saddam and his party came to power on that day; they promised improvements, but they turned out to be liars," said Ahmed Ali, 42, who runs an electronics shop.

But Ali said many Iraqis now feel the same way about the United States. He said he personally likes the U.S. soldiers who have come into his shop to buy televisions and DVD players. But he said he feels let down by President Bush and his administration, and that even people who hated Hussein are extremely angry with the United States. He said his city is wracked by uncontrolled crime and violence, a lack of electricity and other basic services despite American promises that things will improve.

"People need food, jobs, electricity and a good living," Ali said. "Saddam and his party used to consider us their slaves. Now we are slaves of the Americans, so nothing has changed."

President Bush and top U.S. officials in Iraq have said that most Iraqis are glad to be rid of Hussein. They acknowledge that the country has a serious security problem and that reconstruction of basic infrastructure will take time. But they say that the democracy that emerges eventually will be a vast improvement over Hussein's brutal dictatorship and that it will be overwhelmingly supported by the people here.

Nonetheless, the growing impatience and anger with the pace of change, apparent in conversations with numerous Iraqis today, has fueled persistent rumors that Thursday could bring at least a symbolic attempt to lash back at the U.S. military.

"It won't be big enough to shake the world, because the Iraqis are not strong enough. But it will be chaotic," said a former Iraqi Army colonel, who gave his only his first name, Hassan. Sitting in his shop, where he sells Tang and "hambogars," he said, "I think Iraqis will help anyone who does something against the Americans on July 17."

In the Adhamiya neighborhood, Hassan Abu Zaid, 40, sipped tea in a goldsmith's shop near walls covered with graffiti that said, "Saddam the Brave," and "the Fedayeen are coming," a reference to Hussein's elite special forces.

"More than 75 percent of Iraqis were happy to get rid of Saddam," Abu Zaid said. "But now at least half of them wish he was back. We've gotten nothing but promises from the Americans."

Asked how anyone could support Hussein given his grisly record of killing his own people, goldsmith Abdul Karim Nazar, 42, said that it is "not clear to many Iraqis that Hussein was worse than other world leaders in history. Did Americans support their president after all the red Indians were killed?" he asked.

Across the street, shopkeeper Ahmed Wali, 28, said he was once jailed and beaten with whips for a week by Hussein's police. Wali said he was a member of Iraq's national wrestling team when another member defected, so the government decided to punish him and the remaining team members.

Even with that, Wali said he still preferred Hussein to the U.S.-led occupation. He said security was better under Hussein, and people had more jobs. "At least he was one of us," Wali said. "We've seen nothing from the Americans."

All the rumors about impending attacks don't mean much to Sgt. William Thompson, who was guarding the Baghdad Convention Center, home to the Coalition Press Information Center and companies such as communications giant MCI, which is trying to bring cellphone service to Iraq.

"We'll just keep taking [the antibiotic] doxycycline and drinking lots of water; the 17th doesn't mean anything to us," Thompson said. "For us, every day's a bad guy day."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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