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Tuesday, April 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:16 P.M.
With rebels ruling Iraq roads, U.S. forces feeling pinched
By Nicholas Riccardi and Edmund Sanders
BAGHDAD, Iraq At a sprawling desert camp in southern Iraq, U.S. soldiers sleep in trucks and Humvees because Iraqi merchants are afraid to deliver tents.
On a key road west through the Sunni Triangle, masked men with Kalashnikov assault rifles have occupied the concrete-block checkpoints the U.S. military once used.
At Baghdad's airport, goods are piling up because Iraqi truckers refuse to brave the main highway to the capital or transport the material to other U.S. bases. Of all the sudden changes in Iraq during the past three weeks, control of the roads is among the most striking. The U.S.-led coalition has been unable to hold onto all of its supply and communication lines on vital routes leading from the capital. Insurgents have blown up key bridges and rocketed fuel convoys.
Although the U.S. military says there are no serious shortages, the perilous state of Iraq's roads adds to a sense of chaos created by three weeks of Iraqi resistance that has left at least 99 U.S. service members dead, dozens of foreign civilian workers taken hostage and two allies, Spain and Honduras, announcing they will pull their troops out of the country.
The United States vows to retake the roads; meanwhile, it is flying in more material from Kuwait and altering convoy routes and times.
"In some cases, we have had to change the way we do business, but the bottom line is that critical supplies food, water, fuel, ammunition, spare parts are getting to the people that need them," said Army Maj. Richard Spiegel, of the 13th Corps Support Command, which is in charge of logistics in Iraq. "Example: Are some mess halls serving less variety of food? Yes, they are ... but there is still plenty of fresh food."
The road to Baghdad International Airport, on the western edge of the capital, has long been the site of ambushes of U.S. convoys, but insurgents last week increased assaults on trucks and convoys and began handing out leaflets warning of more attacks.
That was enough for Qassim Kadhum, 43. Until Saturday, the trucker was still picking up goods at the airport. But after passing several burned-out cars that day, he said he understood why crates were piling up at the terminals with no one to move them. Kadhum decided he would join other Iraqis who had stopped hauling supplies from the airport. "We are worried we'll be targets," he said. "We are not only worried about our safety, but the future of our families."
Military buyers had signed contracts with local vendors to supply everything from water to portable tents. "When the security situation gets bad, they don't want to deliver, and that's what's happening now," said Army Capt. Ron Talarico, who is helping coordinate supplies.
In related developments:
Honduran President Ricardo Maduro announced last night that the Central American nation would pull its troops out of Iraq "in the shortest time possible." Honduras' 370 troops have been serving in Najaf under command of Spain, which said Sunday it was immediately withdrawing its 1,300 soldiers.
President Bush yesterday scolded Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero for the abrupt withdrawal, telling him in a telephone conversation to avoid actions that give "false comfort to terrorists or enemies of freedom in Iraq."
Poland announced it would not withdraw its 2,400 troops but said it could not send any more to make up for the defections.
Albania, Ukraine, Australia, Portugal, Slovakia, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic also reaffirmed their commitments.
U.S. officials and local Iraqi leaders announced a series of measures aimed at defusing tensions in the violence-racked city of Fallujah, where clashes between insurgents and Marines have killed hundreds of people the past two weeks.
The deal calls for people inside the city to cease attacks on the Marines and surrender heavy weapons. In exchange, the Marines pledged to halt offensive operations, relax their siege of the city and cede responsibility to local authorities for tracking down and prosecuting the killers of four U.S. security contractors.
There were indications another tense confrontation between U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf may be easing. Al-Sadr's militiamen yesterday vacated most of the government buildings they seized earlier, and only one significant clash between al-Sadr's militiamen and U.S. troops was reported yesterday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday denied as "silly" that he learned of Bush's decision to invade Iraq after Saudi Arabia was informed, as The Washington Post's Bob Woodward wrote in his new book, "Plan of Attack."
"That's silly, because I participated in the development of the plan. I commented on the plan when it was being developed, and I knew when Vice President (Dick) Cheney and (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and Gen. (Richard) Myers were going to go brief Prince Bandar (bin Sultan) on a plan, a plan that I was intimately familiar with," Powell said.
Bush yesterday named John Negroponte, the top U.S. diplomat at the United Nations, as the first U.S. ambassador to postwar Iraq. Negroponte's confirmation as U.N. ambassador was delayed a half-year mostly because of criticism of his record as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. In Honduras, Negroponte played a prominent role in assisting the contras in Nicaragua in their war with the left-wing Sandinista government but was accused of acquiescing to human-rights abuses by a Honduran death squad funded and partly trained by the CIA.
U.S. troops yesterday shot to death two employees of the U.S.-funded television station Al-Iraqiya in the central city of Samara, the station said. It said, "American forces opened fire on them while they were performing their duty." The U.S. military had no comment.
According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken over the weekend, one-third of Americans interviewed say the United States should send more troops to Iraq, one-quarter say present troop levels should be maintained and 20 percent favor withdrawing all troops.
Swedish police arrested four people overnight on suspicion they had supported Iraqi rebel attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Swedish media reported today.
Material from The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Reuters is included in this report.
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