July 30, 2003 - Posted at: 1:52 p.m. CDT
TIKRIT, Iraq - Assailants gunned down the chief of Saddam Hussein's tribe in the ousted leader's hometown of Tikrit a few weeks after he had publicly disavowed Saddam. Although the motive for the attack was unclear, Abdullah Mahmoud al-Khattab had many enemies, the regional governor said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, two attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq wounded at least six soldiers, U.S. troops shot and killed four people at roadside checkpoints and a mosque explosion killed 10 people in the restive town of Fallujah, further stirring anti-U.S. sentiment in a town where Saddam and his Baath Party still enjoy some support.
In Baghdad, the top U.S. official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said the U.S.-led provisional authority was "well on track to establish an Iraqi interim administration by mid-July." The United States has pledged to set up a political council of 25 to 30 Iraqis that will appoint heads of ministries and be consulted on major decisions taken by the occupation government.
Bremer also said the U.S.-led authority has issued a call to airlines to submit applications to start commercial air service to Baghdad.
"Day by day conditions in Iraq continue to improve," said Bremer. "Freedom becomes more and more entrenched and the dark days of the Baathist regime are further and further back in people's memories."
Those words were belied by a burgeoning insurgency that is seeing several attacks on U.S. troops every day, leading some to worry about the possibility of a Vietnam-style quagmire.
In Tikrit, Abdullah Mahmoud al-Khattab, who was leader of Saddam's Bani al-Nasiri tribe, was shot and killed Sunday afternoon while he rode in his car. Governor Hussein al-Jubouri said al-Khattab's son, Odai, was also wounded in the attack.
The killing highlighted the shifting alliances that have characterized postwar Iraq as the country emerges from 35 years of brutal, one-man rule. Even those eager to distance themselves from Saddam at times find themselves paying dearly for their links to him in the past.
The assailants fired at al-Khattab's car from a pickup truck and fled the scene, said al-Jubouri.
He said al-Khattab "had many enemies and he had confiscated a lot of properties and killed many people."
"The person who killed him could have taken revenge," al-Jubouri added.
Several Tikrit residents said the tribal chief could have been killed by Saddam loyalists angered at his recent public disavowal of Saddam.
Saddam still enjoys a degree of popularity in Tikrit, where he built roads and schools and soccer fields for the local population.
Pro-Saddam graffiti is scribbled on walls: "Pray for Saddam's victory because he's a genuine Iraqi." "May the occupation fall and may Saddam return."
"He's just, he's pious, he's a real Muslim, he loves his people," gushed Abu Ahmed when Saddam's name came up.
Still, most Iraqis express disdain for the ousted dictator. That, however, has not stopped anti-U.S. forces from stepping up their attacks on occupation forces in recent days.
On Tuesday, assailants traveling in a vehicle in central Baghdad fired a rocket propelled-grenade at a U.S. military vehicle, injuring three soldiers. Another rocket-propelled grenade on Tuesday slammed into a U.S. truck on a road 12 miles south of Baghdad, injuring another three soldiers.
In western Baghdad, U.S. troops shot and killed two people when their car failed to stop at a checkpoint, witnesses said. A U.S. military spokesman said he had heard reports of the incident but could not confirm it. Later, two more civilians were shot and killed at a nearby checkpoint, one by soldiers who feared he was an insurgent and another by a stray bullet, witnesses said.
Because of the upsurge in attacks that have killed more than 20 U.S. soldiers and wounded dozens more since major combat was declared over on May 1, many troops have become quicker to pull their guns in recent days.
Attempting to quell the insurgency, a U.S. sweep dubbed Operation Sidewinder moved against insurgents in the so-called "Sunni triangle" north and east of Baghdad for a third day Tuesday. The Army's 4th Infantry Division conducted 25 raids and detained 25 suspects as part of the operation, a military statement said. No major fugitives of Saddam's regime were among the detained, however.
A blast in a small cinderblock building in the courtyard of Fallujah's al-Hassan mosque killed 10 Iraqis and wounded four others late Monday, said Col. Guy Shields, spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad. Iraqis insisted the blast was caused by a U.S. missile — an account the U.S. military vehemently denied.
After the explosion, dozens of people gathered around the site shouting anti-American slogans.
"There is no God but Allah, America is the enemy of God," they chanted, as a crane lifted pieces of concrete.
Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, has been a hotbed of anti-American activity and scene of several confrontations involving U.S. troops.
An explosion over the weekend at an ammunitions depot killed at least 15 people and injured at least four near Hadithah, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, officials said Tuesday.
Metal scavengers dismantled 155 mm artillery rounds, spreading gun powder on the ground at the depot, which housed old Iraqi artillery. A spark there Saturday set off massive explosions, local officials said.
Hadithah policeman Lt. Saad Aziz said there was a large pile of TNT explosives at the depot, and people were smoking there.
"This kind of TNT is very sensitive to heat. A small spark could set the whole thing off," he said.
Mohammed Nayil Assaf, Hadithah's mayor, put the death toll at 25 and the injured at 6. He said there was a large amount of ammunition stored in the area and insisted U.S. troops had been guarding it only sporadically.
"It was a tragic day for Hadithah," he told the AP outside the town hall, near a 3-foot-high pile of shell casings seized from looters after Saturday's explosion.