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One hundred and twenty degrees in the shade

By Michael R. Gordon
New York Times


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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Bernard Kerik had just begun to tell me how he was building a new police force for Iraq when his cellphone rang.

"Are we sure it was a car?" he asked. "How close in to the building did they get? What about casualties?"

Moments later, Mr. Kerik bolted from his office at the Republican Palace, the massive headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority that administers Iraq. He was headed for the Jordanian Embassy, where a car bomb had just exploded, killing at least 17 people and wounding scores more in the deadliest attack since American forces took over Iraq's capital in April.

The Iraqi police who report to Mr. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner and the policy adviser to Iraq's Interior Ministry, had been given responsibility for protecting the Jordanian Embassy. Just days earlier, Mr. Kerik traveled to Amman to meet with Jordanian officials and establish a working relationship with the Jordanian police.

The Jordanians have been worried about the presence of foreign operatives and terrorist factions in Iraq. But like the Iraqi police, they had not anticipated that their embassy was at risk. The embassy's security cameras were not even working at the time of the attack on Thursday morning.

Coalition officials assert that they are beginning to get traction in their effort to build a new Iraq. The next few months, a coalition official said, are critical to the push to develop momentum and garner Iraqi support. But this is a nation-building effort that is distinctly different from the one the United States and its allies pursued in the Balkans.

In Kosovo, for example, nation-building began after the war. In Iraq, the nation-building effort is being carried out in the middle of a guerrilla war. The effort to build a new Iraq has been actively opposed by paramilitary forces loyal to the Saddam Hussein regime, by foreign fighters, saboteurs, terrorists and to a lesser extent by ordinary Iraqis who have been offended by some of the hard-nosed American military tactics.

The blast at the Jordanian Embassy was a vivid instance in which the painstaking effort to remake Iraq was abruptly and violently challenged. The blast was so powerful that a nearby car was thrown 60 feet in the air, landing on top of a three-story building.

Even on a good day, the threat of violence lurks just below the surface. The C-130 that took me to the Baghdad airport did a stomach-churning spiral maneuver as it approach the airfield, a precaution against possible surface-to-air missiles. There have been three confirmed missile firings and the airport is still not open to civilian traffic, a considerable obstacle for an administration trying to rebuild the economy.

American soldiers, for their part, have become expert on a variety of improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D's. A common technique is to put a blasting cap on an old artillery shell and wire it so that it can be detonated when American vehicles pass by. A less discriminating approach is to pull the pin from a grenade, wrap a rubber band around it to hold the activating handle, or spoon, in place and then put it in a pan of gasoline that gradually eats through the rubber band, causing the grenade to explode at a time and target uncertain.

During this long, hot summer, each side has been studying and trying to outthink the other. The insurgents, who had concentrated their attacks at night, now often attack during the heat of the day, when it can reach 120 degrees in the shade, apparently calculating that the searing summer temperatures will make American troops less alert and keep many passer-bys off the street, thus giving the attackers a clearer shot.

American forces are also adapting their tactics. The new commander of the First Armored Division, Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, has changed the approach in Baghdad.

The emphasis is no longer on conducting regular three-hour patrols. That had been intended to maintain a persistent presence in the Iraqi capital and demonstrate to Iraqis that the Americans were attending to their security. But that also made American forces predictable and thus more vulnerable without yielding sufficient intelligence to eradicate future threats. So General Dempsey has decided to vary the duration and composition of his patrols.

American military officers, however, emphasize that the solution is not only military but also political. The key, they say, is to restore electricity to show Iraqis that the United States can take care of their basic needs and to generate jobs and jump-start the economy. Facilitating the transition to a new Iraqi government and establishing an Iraqi police and internal defense force are also important elements of the plan.

The Americans would like to create a new division of labor on security, with the Iraqi police and internal security forces assuming more responsibility for keeping order at home. The Americans, in turn, plan to be more selective about their raids, which have netted some senior Baathist but also many ordinary citizens. The goal is to "put an Iraqi face on security," as one senior American officer put it, and avoid heavy-handed tactics that have alienated some Iraqi citizens.

That is another reason why the attack on the Jordanian Embassy was significant. While the physical target may have been the embassy, the strike also cast a spotlight on and illustrated the shortcomings of the new Iraqi security apparatus that along with the Jordanians was supposed to have defended the embassy. Even the staunchest advocates of the nation-building effort now under way acknowledge that much more work needs to be done to develop an effective, sizable and multifaceted Iraqi police and security force.

According to the most recent casualty reports from the embassy attack, none of the people killed were Jordanian. They were all Iraqi, including five policemen.


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