Danger Around Every Corner

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ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY

Soldiers grieve at a service for Specialist Donald Laverne Wheeler Jr., killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while on patrol in Tikrit on Oct. 13

On Oct. 8 TIME's Brian Bennett got the message he had been awaiting from an intermediary: if he wished to interview members of an Iraqi resistance group, he should show up at a specified address in Baghdad the following day at 8 a.m. Bennett arrived at the appointed hour and got into a car that sped west out of the capital. Halfway between Fallujah and Ramadi, he was blindfolded, and the car turned off the highway. After 10 minutes it stopped. His guide explained that they were placing wooden planks over a canal. They drove over the water and into a grove of baby pomegranate trees.

Bennett took off his blindfold and met two men who called themselves Abu Omar and Abu Mohammed. Their faces covered by red-and-white checkered scarves, they agreed to discuss their deadly vocation. They described how they form teams of four to work with antitank mines looted from Iraqi-army munition sites or bought from middlemen who steal them from unguarded dumps. They daisy-chain three or four together to spread out explosive power and set them along roads traveled by U.S. convoys. When the lead vehicle passes a marker, one of the men sets off the mines with a crank detonator connected to them by wires; the others provide covering fire. Lately they have begun staging more elaborate, two-phase attacks that require up to a dozen men. In these missions, after mines are set off under convoys, hidden fighters launch rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at the stopped vehicles and spray them with machine-gun fire.


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Judging from the eyes peeking through his scarf, Abu Omar appeared to be in his 20s. He said he had just got a degree in history. Abu Mohammed had been a contractor before the war and served for six years in an artillery unit of the Iraqi army. They claimed they had not supported Saddam Hussein when he was in power; the dictator had not treated the people from their area well. But now, they said, they were fighting for him because he represents an independent Iraq. They said their group had no name, and although they believed there were foreign fighters in Iraq, their 12-man cell was made up entirely of Iraqis. They had not met other resisters but said their commander, whom they did not name, was in touch with more anti-American groups.

Three days later a car driven by a suicide bomber set off a lethal explosion at the Baghdad Hotel. Bennett received a message from the men he had met, claiming a role in the operation. It is impossible to confirm that; no one can say for sure who was responsible for that attack — or for most of the assaults plaguing the country.

President Bush says the media are overplaying the violence in Iraq. Yet the past two weeks' casualties would make anyone take notice. A stranger in the garb of a Shi'ite cleric rang the doorbell at the Baghdad home of a Spanish diplomat involved in intelligence gathering. As the diplomat fled, the stranger's armed accomplices gunned him down. A white Oldsmobile careered into a Baghdad police compound and exploded, killing eight Iraqis and wounding 40. A Toyota Corolla packed with explosives scooted around 12ft.-high concrete barriers guarding the Baghdad Hotel, where some members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council stay, and detonated, killing six Iraqi guards and injuring 40 more. A suicide car bomber aiming for Turkey's embassy in Baghdad took the life of an Iraqi bystander.

While American casualties fluctuate month to month, they're spiking again. On Oct. 6 two U.S. soldiers patrolling outside Baghdad died when a roadside bomb blasted their convoy, and another perished west of the city when his unit was hit. Three days later a G.I. lost his life to an RPG, and two others were killed in Baghdad's turbulent Sadr City when a false cry for help lured their squad into an ambush. Over the next four days, three G.I.s died in separate combat incidents. On Friday three U.S. soldiers and 10 Iraqis died in a fire fight at the Karbala headquarters of a Shi'ite cleric, and another American fell in Baghdad.

Bush is right, of course, to say the killings aren't the only news from Iraq. The U.S. has been making headway in restoring the country to normality. Power production recently surpassed the prewar average, more than 1,500 schools have been rehabilitated, and the din of construction fills the capital. Large swaths of the countryside are calm and cooperative. And the Administration won a diplomatic showdown with the U.N. Security Council last week when the council unanimously endorsed the U.S. plan for reconstructing Iraq — though the victory felt somewhat hollow when council members immediately declared they would not contribute men or money to the effort.

The fact is, the realities coexist: this is a country working to move on amid a shooting war that will not end. For soldiers and citizens alike, there are still many ways to die in Iraq, and the coroners who tidy away the dead have seen them all. Rifle fire. Roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, as the U.S. military calls them. RPGs. Mortar fire. Suicide car bombs. Some days it feels as if Iraqis opposing the U.S. presence are throwing everything they can at the young soldiers and the locals helping them rebuild the country. Some weeks are better than others, but the drumbeat of attacks persists, and the drip-drip of casualties isn't letting up. Despite the best efforts of field commanders, the U.S.-led coalition is still struggling to contain the threat. And the latest spasm of attacks has only deepened unease that the chaos of the early postwar days may be evolving into a more deliberate resistance, as scattershot hostility hardens into something more organized and sophisticated.

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