Amid tensions, sadness cloaks Baath holiday
Purported 'Hussein' tape lauds rebellious Fallujah, calls council U.S. puppet

By Douglas Birch
Sun Foreign Staff
Originally published July 18, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The small al-Mamun branch of the Rasheed Bank was closed yesterday, the anniversary of the Baath Party's seizure of power 35 years ago.

But if anyone was celebrating, they were keeping quiet. There was a somber mood among the only people allowed near the two-story, residential-style building - a group of American soldiers and Iraqi security guards.

The bank was closed for cleanup after a grenade attack Wednesday, the anniversary of Saddam Hussein's taking power in 1979. The attack had injured a soldier and killed a 12-year-old Iraqi boy the soldiers had counted as a friend. Yesterday, the soldiers and guards worried about where the next grenade might come from.

"We know we're being watched," said Staff Sgt. Antonio Rico, 30, of Los Angeles as he scanned passing traffic and the shops across the four-lane highway. "It's still a very dangerous place."

A new 'Hussein' tape

While most of his supporters were lying low yesterday, Hussein apparently chose to mark the Baath Party holiday by releasing his third taped message since he vanished in April.

A correspondent for Al-Arabiya television said someone phoned his Baghdad Hotel and told him to go to a tree a short walk away. There, he found an audiotape of someone claiming to be Hussein. Iraqis spent years listening to Hussein's voice. Many said the tape was almost certainly genuine.

Several times on the tape, the speaker praised residents of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, for their resistance to U.S. occupation. He denounced anyone aiding the Americans and British as "a slave working for the occupiers." And he said the new Iraqi Governing Council appointed Sunday "takes its orders from Washington."

"Long live the principles of the 17th of July!" he declared.

Across the road from the bank, meanwhile, a cheerful Muhammed Khalil al-Haditha, 63, a retired worker from the state MiAmid tensions, sadness cloaks B.ems nistry of Oil, sat chatting in front of his friend's butcher shop. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis, he asserted, support the attacks on Americans and the Iraqis who work with them.

At least 34 American soldiers have been killed in hostile action since May 1 when President Bush announced that major combat was over. The number of Iraqis who have died is not known.

Al-Haditha blamed coalition troops for the death of the child Wednesday, saying the soldiers deliberately surround themselves with children to protect themselves.

"When they stand in any place," he said, "they shouldn't have Iraqis stand near them."

He insisted that he doesn't hate Americans or the British.

"We Iraqis love all the world," he said. "Quit the occupation and everything will be good."

For weeks, Iraqis have been whispering that Hussein's forces would rise on July 17 and try to restore him to power. On Monday, Iraq's new Governing Council voted to repeal Baathist holidays. That did not guarantee peace, of course.

"The fight will be on the 17th of July!" declared graffiti scrawled on a wall about a mile from the Republican Palace, where the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has its headquarters. "We will return! Be brave!"

There were relatively few assaults on coalition forces, military officials said early in the afternoon. But soldiers were on heightened alert. Even Iraqis seemed more wary, and traffic in central Baghdad seemed much lighter than usual yesterday morning.

Soldiers guarding the bank in al-Mamun, a quiet neighborhood in western Baghdad, strung razor wire out front. A Bradley fighting vehicle was brought in to replace one damaged the day before. Two soldiers took up sniper positions on the building's roof.

Saif Yusef Rahim was lugging a propane gas cylinder from the gas station to his grandfather's house about 1 p.m. The boy liked to hang around the soldiers, and eagerly ran errands for them, bAmid tensions, sadness cloaks B.ems uying cigarettes and sodas. But on Wednesday, he was just passing them on his way home.

Witnesses said a small convoy of cars, including a taxi, was passing on the highway about 30 yards from the bank when someone tossed a grenade that exploded in the dirt 10 feet in front of the armored vehicle. Saif, apparently, was a few feet away.

The explosion threw the fifth-grader several yards, through the open gate leading to the bank entrance. Shrapnel ripped his chest and stomach. His body lay next to a rose bush, where at first no one noticed it amid the confusion.

Three American soldiers, including Rico, were knocked off their feet. One, badly injured, was sent to a military hospital in Germany. Witnesses said a half-dozen Iraqis were hurt.

The incident left several of the bank's Kalashnikov-carrying Iraqi guards badly shaken. Rahab Ali, 27, looked at the armored Bradley nervously.

"They didn't come to bomb the bank, they came to bomb the soldiers," he said. "And now this tank is a threat to this building."

The American soldiers set up a checkpoint, and witnesses said they treated several Iraqi drivers harshly. Many Iraqis do not seem willing to forgive aggressive behavior by Americans, even in the wake of an attack.

"A soldier talked about our mothers and said bad things against us until one of the commanders pulled him aside and talked to him," said Kutaiba al-Jabar, 35, owner of a market across the road. "Then he apologized to us."

He looked across the street.

"My opinion is that they should bring in Iraqi police, not American military police."

Mariam Bahnan, a 45-year-old Assyrian Christian who runs a hairdressers shop, said: "There was no reason for bombing the bank. The Americans came here to secure Iraqis' money. Why did they bomb them? Children were hurt. It's horrible what they have done."

The boy's grandfather, Hashim Essah Hashim, 65, works as a guard at a Russian machinery company ofAmid tensions, sadness cloaks B.ems fice a few hundred yards from the bank. He heard the explosion and went out to see what happened.

"A child came to us," he said. "He told us they took my grandson to the hospital."

Yesterday, an ashen-faced Hashim sat squeezing the hand of his sobbing wife, Haseeba Jubara Muhammed, 64. Neither blames the Americans for their grandson's death.

"He was a very calm and beautiful child," said Muhammed, wiping away the tears with her traditional black veil. "The coalition soldiers loved him."

Rico went to speak to the boy's grandparents yesterday to offer sympathies.

"We all knew the kid," he said, as though he still couldn't believe Saif was dead. "He always came here, every day."

Weapons seized

Meanwhile, military officials said coalition forces had seized 4 tons of explosives yesterday about 30 miles southwest of Baghdad. A spokesman said soldiers also found 260 Roland surface-to-surface missiles and 660 shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles west of Baghdad.

Several weeks ago, coalition officials were talking about reviving commercial air service soon, but that no longer seems likely after a missile was fired Wednesday at a C-130 transport plane landing at Baghdad International Airport. It was the second time in recent weeks that a U.S. plane had come under missile attack there.

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