The War's New Front

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OLEG POPOV/REUTERS

Terror Strikes: A soldier guards the Jordanian embassy site after last week's attack in Baghdad

When Fayek Kudayar Abbas quit his job translating for U.S. troops at the end of May, he thought the threats against him and his family would end. Abbas had worked for the Americans because the $40-a-week salary went a long way toward taking care of his wife and daughters. At first he tolerated harassment from some of his neighbors, who accused him of betraying his country by cooperating with the occupying forces. But as resistance to the U.S. intensified, Abbas found himself in even greater danger. A month after he stopped working with the Americans, his name showed up on a list of "traitors" being circulated among anti-U.S. insurgents. Then a grenade exploded in his garden, and someone scrawled abbas must be killed on the wall of his home.

Abbas, 58, was standing last week in an alley a block from his house in Samarra, 20 miles south of Tikrit, when two men with red scarves wrapped around their heads turned the corner on a black Jawa motorcycle. One of them shot Abbas in the leg and sped off. Abbas lay bleeding in the alley for an hour until an ambulance arrived. None of his neighbors went to his aid. "They were frightened," he said later from his hospital bed, his right leg bandaged up to his waist, "that maybe they would be the next on the list."

With U.S. forces trying to close in on Saddam Hussein and a new Iraqi governing council trying to assert its authority, armed insurgents are expanding the scope of their attacks to sow fear among ordinary Iraqis and discourage them from cooperating with the U.S. The targeting of civilians escalated to terrifying new heights last Thursday, when at least eight and as many as 19 people were killed and more than 50 injured in a car bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad—the deadliest incident of any kind since the fall of Saddam's regime. Though senior intelligence officials say they don't yet know who was behind the blast, Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of allied forces in Iraq, declared it the work of terrorists. A senior intelligence official tells TIME that among the suspects is Ansar al-Islam, a group of Islamist fighters—Iraqi Kurds and Arabs—with suspected links to al-Qaeda. "They could be among those possibly involved," the official says.

While many Iraqis expressed outrage at the perpetrators for attacking a civilian building, the bombing seemed to have fueled just as much bitterness at U.S. forces for failing to prevent the attack and coming too late to rescue the victims. Minutes after the blast, looters ransacked the embassy, tore up the Jordanian flag and stomped on a portrait of Jordanian King Abdullah's father. By the time soldiers from the 1st Armored Division arrived, some 30 minutes later, the crowd had turned hostile. "Screw you, Americans!" screamed a young Iraqi in a white T shirt. "Screw you!"

Though that kind of anti-American rage is by no means universal among Iraqis, officials fear that the rising militancy of those opposed to the U.S. may be dissuading them from assisting U.S. troops, sharing intelligence on the whereabouts of Saddam's loyalists and collaborating in the rebuilding effort. According to Titan, the company that manages the translators for the U.S. military, at least a dozen translators have been killed in the past month by anti-American militants. Other translators hired by U.S. troops say they lie about their jobs for fear of reprisal. When Aymen, 36, an interpreter for the 3rd Infantry Division's Task Force 27 in Baghdad, walks out of the Army compound, he hides his U.S. military ID under his shirt and tells his friends he works in construction. "What if my wife goes to the market and is kidnapped?" he asks. Firas, 24, another translator working with the U.S., says the Iraqis who cheered him on the streets after the fall of Baghdad now "look at me as if I'm a spy or a traitor." No one but his mother knows he's working for the U.S. forces. "It's just too dangerous out there," he says.

The Iraqi fear of reprisals has complicated the U.S. hunt for Saddam. In the past month, two Iraqis working directly with U.S. forces in Tikrit have been murdered. One man, a source who led U.S. troops to a number of weapons caches and resistance organizers, was shot in his auto-repair shop in broad daylight. "I would hate to see the stage," says a Pentagon official close to the search for Saddam, "where they start shooting people who come and talk to us."

For U.S. forces, the collaboration of Iraqi informants has become a critical weapon in the fight against the insurgency. Lieut. Colonel Steven Russell, commander of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, says that by working from Iraqis' tips, his troops, together with the elite special-forces team Task Force 20, are knocking out resistance cells and collapsing the support structure around Saddam. Recent raids, a U.S. intelligence official tells TIME, have come tantalizingly close to capturing the ex-dictator. "I can't say that the bed's been warm" when the special forces have raided suspected hideouts, he says, "but there's certainly evidence to say he's been where we've been." U.S. forces, says the official, have found in hideouts a "certain brand of cigars, certain food items" that are consistent with Saddam's tastes. "He hasn't cast aside his cravings." 

Iraqis who do come forward to talk to the Americans, especially in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, are risking their lives. Former regime officials thought to have pointed fingers at their old bosses are the chief targets of the insurgents' fire. Two weeks ago, members of the Fedayeen Saddam, the former regime's guerrilla corps, were seen about the town's main mosque dropping photocopies of a letter listing 21 "traitors and spies who have direct contact with the occupiers." Ten of the names on the list, a copy of which was acquired by TIME, are those of Saddam's cousins. Last week members of the Fedayeen in Tikrit went after another local man who had sympathized with Saddam before the war but had lately turned on the regime. According to a Fedayeen officer who provides logistics and intelligence to an active guerrilla cell, the suspected turncoat was killed when two men in a pickup truck, their yeshmaghs wrapped around their faces, pulled up to the man's car and sprayed it with AK-47 fire before speeding off.

To militants agitated by the U.S. presence in Iraq, cooperating with the coalition forces is an offense tantamount to treason. In Tikrit, a block from the parade grounds where Saddam often celebrated his birthday, graffiti on a wall in bold Arabic strokes read all those who cooperate with the americans will be killed. Not far down the road, a former lieutenant in the Fedayeen who met with a TIME reporter in his one-story home reiterates that threat. "Traitors," spits the lieutenant at the mention of those helping the U.S. forces. "They are not Iraqis. They don't love their country. They deserve to die."

The American forces in Tikrit say they can't guarantee the safety of all who come to them with information. And while Russell is concerned about the distribution of lists of citizens cooperating with American troops, the U.S. focus on rounding up the leadership and guarding its own forces from attack means it can't extend much protection to the Iraqis, who may be the key to catching Saddam and ultimately subduing the resistance. And so U.S. soldiers are in a race with the insurgents. "Our response," says Russell, "is to finish off our list before they finish off theirs."

U.S. commanders say they are winning the race, but it's a tense fight in which they have to rely on allies they don't know. One night last week, Russell was in an office building in downtown Tikrit, waiting for a call from a new intelligence source who said he knew where a prominent Fedayeen leader was staying for the night. Four M1 Abrams tanks, six Bradley fighting vehicles and two infantry platoons from the 4th Infantry Division stood poised to capture the man, who was believed to have been plotting for months to kill American soldiers in the area. Russell hadn't used this particular informant before, but he had a good feeling. "The information is checking out," Russell said, a smile breaking over his wan face. "This could be a good one."

Just past 11 p.m., Russell's phone rang. The informant had spotted the target; the operation was a go. "I wanna get this bastard who's been attacking my men," Russell said as the convoy pulled out and headed to a flophouse in town where the Fedayeen commander was lodging. Russell's Cobra Company stormed the three-story building, netting 38 workers from out of town and their man—a provincial Fedayeen organizer nicknamed Sami "The Rock." Task Force 20, operating south of Tikrit, nabbed two more "high level" resistance leaders on the same night. Said Russell after the raid: "The source came through." And he could come through again—if his name doesn't end up on the wrong list.

—With reporting by Timothy J. Burger and Massimo Calabresi/ Washington, Hassan Fattah and Vivienne Walt/ Baghdad and Michael Ware/Tikrit