The New York Times
June 14, 2003

Carnage and Clues Are Left in Camp Destroyed by U.S.


RAWA, Iraq, June 13 _ The men arrived in this barren corner of western Iraq only two days ago, local residents said. Attracting little attention at first, they pitched tents on an isolated stream bed five miles from this ancient Euphrates River farming town.

Residents said the men were shepherds armed with rifles for their own protection. American officials said they were terrorists running a training camp for Iraqis and some foreigners eager to kill Americans.

Whoever they were, many of them died early Wednesday morning as bombs and missiles fired by American planes, helicopters and armored vehicles obliterated their encampment. Tonight, dozens of bloodstained blankets and mattresses, a charred, flat-bed truck and the scent of corpses were all that was left of the makeshift settlement.

Where the men came from also remained unclear. A senior American official said Thursday that the majority of the fighters were believed to be Baath Party loyalists along with some foreigners. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said American officials feared that a crackdown on Islamic militants in Saudi Arabia after the bombing of a Western compound there could have caused some militants to flee to Iraq and Yemen.

Foreign fighters have entered Iraq in the past. During the war, American officials said Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of American forces in Iraq, volunteers from Syria and Jordan entered Iraq to join the fight against the Americans.

Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of allied forces in Iraq, said on Thursday that foreign fighters are still arriving in Iraq, but that no country seems to be supporting them.

"I don't think these are state-sponsored," he said at a news conference. "I think they are from different countries."

The size of the camp, situated 50 miles from the Syrian border and 160 miles from Baghdad, and the spirited resistance _ an American Apache helicopter was shot down during the assault _ are signs that an armed opposition to the United States appears to be coalescing in areas dominated by Sunni Muslims.

American officials acknowledge that attacks are up, but say they are not facing an organized, coordinated enemy.

Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of Iraq's population, generally benefited from the rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim himself. His remaining supporters, including former members of the Republican Guard and intelligence services, are increasingly taking up arms, American officials said. Sunni-dominated areas north and west of Baghdad have been the scene of attacks that have killed 10 Americans in the last three weeks.

Local residents said they buried 69 men here today, all of whom perished in what local Sunnis are calling "the massacre." Angry men and boys streamed by the hundreds to the remains of the encampment today, collecting the bodies and vowing revenge on Americans.

The residents insisted that the young men, interred by volunteers in neat rows in the local cemetery by dusk, were martyrs.

"The American infidels, they have killed these guys, they were innocent," said Amer al-Arawa, a local shopkeeper. "Me and the other men from the city have to show our courage by killing the Americans."

Just what went on in the camp was difficult to determine, as American forces and local Iraqis had nearly 48 hours to comb through the site. American military officials, citing ongoing operations, refused to comment on any aspect of the camp and issued misleading descriptions of its location. On Thursday, military officials said the camp was 160 miles from the capital.

An inspection of the camp tonight turned up no conclusive proof that men were being trained here. But the personal effects of the young men, as well as evidence of weapons, did not support the contention that they were shepherds.

Strewn across the camp were backpacks, military uniforms and American-style shorts and basketball sneakers _ urban clothing that shepherds are unlikely to wear. Large quantities of medical supplies were packed in tote bags.

There was evidence, but not definitive proof, of the presence of foreign fighters: a catalog from a food processing company in Damascus, Syria, food made in Jordan and a pouch of tobacco made in Algeria. But many of those items are slowly becoming available in Iraq.

At the same time, local residents gave contradictory answers to questions about the identities of the men.

They maintained that all were Iraqis, but said they knew nothing about them, not even their names. They said that all of the men had come from outside the town.

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