|Air Raid Sends Iraqis Message, but What Is It?
By DEXTER FILKINS
Published NYTimes.com: November 14, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 13 - After the start of a well-publicized offensive against Iraqi insurgents, American commanders said Thursday that they were intent on sending the rebels "a message."
But here at the site of one of the operation's primary targets, local Iraqis said they were uncertain what that message was supposed to be.
On the southern edge of the capital, a large building that American commanders said was a "meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point" for the insurgents still stood, despite the military's claim that it had been destroyed in an airstrike the night before.
American soldiers came to the neighborhood several hours before the attack, local residents said, warning of the impending strike and making sure that everyone in the area was evacuated. Then an American AC-130 gunship strafed the building, knocking holes in the walls and wrecking much of the textile machinery arrayed inside.
After the strike, the Americans came back but detained no suspects, not even the owner of the building, and found no weapons.
The owner, Waad Dakhil Bolane, who said the Americans had warned his guards of the impending air raid, shook his head in befuddlement.
"Does this look like a military base to you?" he asked, standing inside his factory, which was still filled with textile machinery. "The Americans came here, told the guards to leave and then attacked. I don't understand."
American commanders, who have been threatening for days to crack down on the Iraqi insurgents, said later that they were certain that the building had been used to fire mortars at American soldiers. One local Iraqi man seemed to confirm this. Told by a visitor that he intended to visit the factory, the man, Dervish Mohammad, waved his hand in warning. "Look out," he said, "there are bad people in there."
But the commanders conceded that their primary aim had been to impress the guerrillas as much as to kill them.
"We were sending a message," an allied official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The message is, `We're coming.' "
In recent weeks military commanders have seemed to be judiciously choosing targets that provide relatively benign opportunities to remind Iraqis of the firepower they have at their disposal.
Last week, after the downing of American helicopters in Falluja and Tikrit, American F-16 fighter jets bombed rudimentary buildings that were suspected of harboring insurgents and matériel. Such planes had been used rarely, if at all, since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
Similarly, the AC-130 gunship, which was used Wednesday night, seemed to bring far more firepower than was needed to shoot up the textile factory. Even after the attack, the building still stood - readily available, it seemed, to harbor the same enemy meetings and planning sessions that were suspected before.
For all the technologically advanced weaponry employed in recent days, it is not clear what effect it has had on tamping down the insurgency. Wednesday, the day the American offensive began, turned out to be one of the most intense yet for American soldiers, who were attacked 46 times by Iraqi guerrillas.
In the last seven days, an American military official said Thursday, the average number of attacks per day against American forces has risen to 37, a step up from previous weeks.
American officials said they had killed or captured a number of Iraqi insurgents during the current offensive and had foiled a number of attacks. In the coming days, they said, the offensive would kick into a higher gear.
Indeed, by late Thursday, the sound of gun and artillery fire, evidently of American origin, began echoing through the Baghdad streets.
Late Thursday evening, American commanders said they had attacked one building and two suspected mortar sites.
The offensive, which was even given a fierce name, Operation Iron Hammer, was announced Wednesday in Washington shortly after it began. It seemed intended to lift the morale of American soldiers here, who have been the target of frequent hit-and-run attacks, which are difficult to repel.
The American officials said they had scored some notable successes on their first night. One came when they spotted a group of Iraqis firing mortars against American targets.