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Distrust Builds Between US Troops, Iraqis


In a Sunni Muslim stronghold of former President Saddam Hussein, about 100 kilometers west of Baghdad, U.S. troop casualties have climbed in the last few months, making soldiers more suspicious of Iraqis and more vigilant against attacks. A similar distrust is also building on the part of the local population.

A patch of dried blood lies in a dusty street in Ramadi. Iraqis say it is the blood of a U.S. soldier, killed when a bomb went off underneath his [Humvee] vehicle. A U.S. military official denies any American died in this attack, but says two Americans were injured.

This kind of confusion marks many interactions between U.S. troops and the residents of Ramadi these days. There are almost daily attacks on U.S. soldiers in the the area around this stronghold of former President Saddam Hussein.

One local resident, 20-year-old Mohammed Hadeed, says he was always friendly toward visitors before, but now he wants to shoot them. Mr. Hadeed says the Americans shot his brother in a raid and his brother is still in the hospital.

Mr. Hadeed said he is so angry that if he sees any American, he will kill him.

Many local residents are angry and afraid, and many of the U.S. soldiers in this area west of Baghdad feel some of the same emotions.

People shoot at them from the backs of cars. Remote-controlled bombs made from old artillery shells detonate on the road as they pass by.

The soldiers say people act friendly most of the time, offering food or something to drink. But the Americans feel just as likely to be bombed or shot at.

"They [attackers] were hiding behind a berm, and they blew up a trail vehicle, which caused the other vehicles to turn around," said Sergeant Wade Norris, describing a recent attack on his convoy. "And once they [the convoy] turned around, then they got small arms fire, so that's a pretty organized attack."

Americans are not the only ones being targeted. Staff Sergeant Gary Qualls says attackers also recently killed Iraqi police recruits who were being trained to provide more law and order on the streets.

"We had a very unfortunate incident a month or so ago, where there was a bombing in the town, and it killed eight Iraqi police recruits that we had just trained, and it was just another effort to sabotage what we had just created," said Staff Sergeant Qualls. Some of the biggest flashpoints of tension between Iraqis and U.S. troops are checkpoints. Troops sometimes fire on vehicles that do not stop when they are supposed to. U.S. spokesman Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo says the coalition is trying to ease the situation.

"We're publicizing through the media, both the print media and on the broadcast media and every way else we can, specific, if you will, procedures, so we don't have mistakes that occur at checkpoints, because we understand that it's very important that the Iraqi people understand what we're doing at these checkpoints," he said.

Another factor in the Iraqi-U.S. tension is the continuing lack of basic services in many parts of the country, five months after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power. A religious leader in Ramadi, Sheikh Jema Hallaf, says that has turned many people against the U.S. troops.

Sheikh Jema Hallaf says he asked the troops to fix what they destroyed during the war, but he is still waiting. He says they promised him they would fix the electricity and the local refinery, but, he says, they have not done so.

The owner of a local car repair shop, Mohammed Rinawi, does not believe the killing will stop any time soon.

"It is not good. It is very danger[ous]," he said. "If anyone kills the American, then the American kill the Arab. It is not good."

Relations seem to be at a standoff for the moment in Ramadi. U.S. troops avoid traveling through town when they can, taking the highway instead. And many Iraqis try to avoid the American checkpoints and patrols.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis seize on any evidence of a setback to the foreign forces, like the patch of blood on the Ramadi street, and make it a focal point for their hostility and frustration.

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