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New, Soft Targets in Iraq: Bombing Shifts the Focus

Michael R. Gordon
The New York Times

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BAGHDAD, Iraq, August 7 -- The car bomb that ripped apart the Jordanian Embassy today has brought terrorism to the heart of Iraq's capital and presented the American-led occupation with a new and unpredictable threat.

American forces have repeatedly come under attack from small teams armed with rocket-propelled grenades and by an array of homemade mines and explosive devices.

This attack was different. The blast was not directed against well-armed American forces but against what the military calls a soft target, a highly vulnerable and undefended structure. The goal was not to alter the military equation but to punish a foreign government and produce a large number of civilian casualties.

Nobody claimed responsibility for today's blast, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in recent weeks, it has become clear that the enemy the Americans are fighting is multifaceted and diverse.

Not only are American forces fighting remnants of Saddam Hussein's government, fedayeen paramilitary fighters and disgruntled Iraqis upset by American military tactics, but they are also contending with foreign fighters and terrorist groups.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that militants from the Ansar al-Islam group were in Iraq. Some, in fact, have been captured and are in the process of being interrogated.

L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the American-led provisional government, said recently, "We believe there are now quite a number of these Ansar al-Islam professional killers on the loose in the country." Ansar al-Islam is a terrorist group that was believed to have been broken up by American bombing in northeastern Iraq.

The presence of foreign militants who appear to see Iraq as a new arena for pursuing their jihad against America is a significant development. It indicates that American forces and the new Iraqi government they support will probably face some form of organized opposition even if supporters of Mr. Hussein are dealt a decisive setback and he himself is captured or killed.

The American authorities appear to be unsure whether Al Qaeda has established a presence here. But American military officials say Qaeda-like fighters militants from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries have infiltrated Iraq from Syria.

Taking the fight to this enemy, the United States bombed a military camp in June near the Syrian border and killed an estimated 70 fighters. A Saudi and a Syrian fighter were captured.

A senior American military official said today that the operatives of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party and foreign fighters appeared to be operating independently and not coordinating their actions.

The embassy bombing comes at a time when the American authorities here are hoping that the Iraqis' newly established police force and embryonic security forces can take on greater responsibility for maintaining order at home, including the protection of infrastructure and other important sites.

It was the Iraqi police, in fact, who were charged with safeguarding the Jordanian Embassy, according to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the commander of allied forces in Iraq.

The hope is that by shifting more of the security burden to the Iraqis, American forces can focus more on capturing and killing Baath Party operatives and others opposed to the American presence and, ultimately, reduce the number of American forces kept in Iraq.

There are now about 5,500 Iraqi police officers in Baghdad, about a third of the force's planned strength, and 33,000 nationwide, about half the planned strength. In addition, thousands of Iraqi army and internal security forces are being trained. American and allied troops in Iraq number about 160,000.

The bombing today caught the Iraqis off guard, caused many in the city to wonder if this is just the first of a wave of terror attacks, and raised the question whether the planned transfer of more authority to Iraqi security forces would prove feasible in the short term.

General Sanchez described the bombing as "the worst on a soft target" since American forces took the city in April.

Ghassan Salame, a senior United Nations official here, said: "This is a new form of violence. That's exactly what a terrorist attack is, an indiscriminate attack on civilians, on people who have the bad luck of being there at the moment it exploded."

Whoever may be behind today's blast, the threat of bombings and other attacks has turned the provisional American-led government into a fortified island inside Baghdad.

The alliance has been forced to postpone the official opening of Baghdad International Airport. At least three surface-to-air missiles have been fired at planes approaching the airfield, a development that has kept it off limits to major commercial carriers.

The Jordanians discovered to their apparent surprise today that they were targets as well, possibly because of their quiet support for the United States. Jordan supported the American military campaign to topple Mr. Hussein's government.

American Special Operations forces, including aircraft, used Jordan as a base to conduct operations in western Iraq. The Jordanian authorities, however, have been concerned that Iranian and extremist Shiite factions were beginning to operate inside neighboring Iraq.

Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who is charged with building Iraq's police force, went to Amman, Jordan's capital, several days ago to establish a working relationship with the Jordanian police. He was in his office at the allied headquarters today when he was notified of the embassy bombing. Before he went to the scene, he offered a quick assessment of the expanding dangers that the allied forces face.

"I have serious concerns about factions that may be coming into this country and may participate in an act like this," Mr. Kerik said.

Michael R. Gordon is a writer with The New York Times.

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