July 4, 2003

Military Split on Blast at Mosque

* U.S. commanders on the ground dispute top brass' claim that a bomb-making class at the Iraqi complex might have been responsible

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Terry McDermott, Times Staff Writers


U.S. commanders on the ground have found no direct evidence to substantiate allegations by the military's Central Command that a deadly explosion at a mosque compound may be related to bomb-making activities, officers said Thursday.

"I don't think you could say any way definitively that that was what was going on," said Capt. Joffery Watson, intelligence officer for occupation troops in this restive town west of Baghdad. "I have no idea where CentCom got that."

In a brief statement Wednesday, the Central Command said the explosion that killed as many as 10 people Monday night "was apparently related to a bomb-manufacturing class that was being taught inside the mosque."

Lt. Col. Eric Wesley of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division, which is occupying Fallouja, said Thursday, "I'm unaware of the bomb school information."

The varying accounts of the mosque blast left commanders here in a difficult position. Some even suggested privately that the Central Command had gotten it wrong.

Many residents blamed the explosion on a U.S. warplane, and witness accounts of such an aircraft above the mosque before the blast were disseminated widely in the Arabic-language press. Neighborhood residents dubbed the dead men "martyrs" in a fight pitting Islam against an occupying power.

U.S. military officials have downplayed the possible presence of explosives in the Fallouja mosque as an isolated instance and not a sign of a growing Islamic front against occupation forces.

U.S. authorities have reported sporadic attacks from the vicinity of mosques and have even arrested some prayer leaders in the country.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the U.S.-led ground forces in Iraq, said in Baghdad on Thursday that the Fallouja site was a suspected bomb factory.

But he also said: "I am here to tell you that over the last month, Fallouja has been a great example of cooperation. Most of the local sheiks are cooperating."

For weMilitary Split on Blast at Mosq.ems eks, U.S. troops have been working to calm a potentially incendiary state of affairs in this city, which has emerged as a caldron of anti-U.S. activity. The last thing they want is to inflame passions further.

Military authorities here have avoided jumping to quick conclusions publicly about the cause of the explosion, which killed the mosque imam, or preacher, Sheik Laith Khalil Dahham, 35, and as many as nine other men described by residents as religious students.

One possible explanation circulating widely among moderate Iraqis here is that agitators seeking to discredit U.S. forces deliberately planted the explosives at the mosque compound, a scenario that would exonerate the dead. U.S. military officials here say they have not ruled out the possibility that outsiders planted a bomb.

"I think this explosion was carried out by strangers looking to provoke trouble," Abdul Sattar Hardan, a leading religious figure here, said Thursday. He was speaking at a news conference at the heavily fortified City Hall that was organized as part of a U.S. military public relations offensive.

At the same event, the U.S.-backed mayor, Taha Badawi Alwani, called the explosion "a grave sign of escalation."

The leaders called on residents of Fallouja and surrounding towns to await the results of a local police investigation before reaching any conclusions.

"Peace, justice, security and cooperation must prevail between the two sides," Sattar said.

A Central Command spokesman, Maj. Brad Lowell, declined to specify sources for the bomb-making allegation but stood by the statement. "I see nothing to change what we put out," he said from Florida, where the command is based.

And the top U.S. officer in Fallouja, Col. Joseph DiSalvo, said that "there was no disconnect" between field officers and their superiors in the Central Command. The colonel and others left open the possibility that the Central Command may have alternative sources of information.

The mysterious blast occurred late Monday in a building at the Al Hassan mosque complex in a working-class neighborhood. It blew the roof off the building, blasted a hole in the exterior wall of the compound and gouged another hole in the nearby mosque.

Military officers here quickly concluded that the explosion came from inside the structure, based on the blast pattern and forensic evidence.

The imam, authorities confirmed Thursday, had been identified by U.S. commanders as a cleric who was given to making anti-American statements at his weekly sermons. But there was no indication that explosives were stored at the green-domed mosque complex, Capt. Watson said.

McDonnell reported from Fallouja and McDermott from Baghdad.

Original URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/complete/la-fg-fallouja4jul04,1,2583880.story?coll=la-iraq-complete

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