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Rising Iraqi Civilian Death Toll Dampens Public Opinion Toward Insurgency - 2004-01-01

A car bomb exploded outside a Baghdad restaurant on New Year's Eve, killing at least eight Iraqi civilians. It is just one of a string of attacks that have killed far more Iraqis than coalition troops. The civilian death toll is starting to turn Iraqi public opinion against the anti-coalition insurgency.

Six months ago, most of the insurgent attacks in Iraq targeted coalition troops. At that time, most of the casualties were American soldiers, who at one point were being killed at a rate of more than one a day.

Iraqi civilians, fed up with the U.S.-led occupation, called them resistance attacks. Even if they did not actually support the insurgency, many people here sympathized with the attackers.

Some, like 45-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Jasim, still do. He says the occupation forces claim that these are terrorists. Maybe there are some terrorists, he says, but most of them are national resistance fighters.

But in recent months, the insurgents have changed their tactics. Massive car bombs exploded outside the U.N. building and the International Red Cross, as well as embassies and Iraqi police stations. Hotels housing western journalists have been bombed, or attacked with rockets and mortars.

The U.S. military says attacks specifically targeting Iraqi civilians have increased from one or two a day to three or four. Those attacks have gotten deadlier, and as the civilian death toll rises, so does public anger toward the insurgents.

A man living near the bombed restaurant, who gave his name only as Saef, expressed his anger over the deliberate targeting of civilians.

"We, too, we are surprised," he said. "All the Iraqi people are surprised. Why they do something like this? Why? They killing Iraqi people. Why they do something like this? Why?"

At the same time, attacks against coalition troops are now just as likely, if not more so, to kill Iraqi bystanders as they are to hurt the soldiers, who wear body armor and travel in armored vehicles.

More and more Iraqi civilians now use the word terrorist to describe the attacks, not resistance.

Earlier this week, a roadside bomb aimed at a U.S. military convoy killed two Iraqi children and an American soldier in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada. Two days after that, another roadside bomb in the same neighborhood again killed and wounded Iraqi civilians, but no Americans.

On the streets of Karrada after the second bombing, Abbas Mahmoud said the insurgents have crossed the line. He said, no Americans have been hurt. This is not resistance. The resistance should not attack poor, innocent people, or kill his Iraqi brothers. He says if they want to fight the Americans, let them do it face to face.

The U.S. military would probably prefer that, too. American troops with their high-tech gear are generally considered much better at open combat than they are at anti-insurgency operations.

The commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, Brigadier General Martin Dempsey of the First Armored Division, says the roadside bombs are part psychological weapon, designed to demoralize and cause confusion.

"To people like me, it seems to be anathema to the way we would choose to fight a war ourselves, because it is also indiscriminate," he said. "… So, it is truly a weapon of terror. Why have they chosen a weapon of terror? I do not know the answer to that. Unfortunate, isn't it? I will tell you what it does to my soldiers, it makes them all the more eager to find them [the insurgents]." Military leaders and the Iraqi police believe there may actually be two insurgencies operating side by side in Iraq, with different methods and only vaguely similar goals. They think a lot of the attacks against U.S. troops and coalition targets, such as the roadside bombs in Karrada, are largely being carried out by remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime or other Iraqi insurgents.

But they think suicide bombings like the New Year's Eve restaurant attack, are probably the work of foreign fighters, possibly linked to al-Qaida or other international terrorist organizations.

But both kinds of attacks are increasingly having the same deadly impact on Iraqi civilians. And the rising death toll is gradually eroding the insurgents' support among the Iraqi people.

Military officials and Iraqi police commanders say they are getting an increasing number of tips from Iraqi civilians about the location of possible roadside bombs, as well as the whereabouts of the anti-coalition fighters. They think cooperation with coalition forces is increasing partly because people are just tired of violence, and partly because they no longer believe Saddam Hussein will return to power, now that he is in coalition custody.