BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A U.S. soldier has been shot in the head and critically wounded while shopping in a Baghdad store, the latest target in a surge of attacks that analysts say could explode into open revolt.
The soldier, a specialist assigned to try to win over the civilian population, was shopping for digital video disks in the Kazimiyah neighbourhood in the northwest of Baghdad when he was shot in the back of the head, residents said on Friday.
“He took out dollars from his pocket and as I looked at the money I heard a bang. He froze and then fell backwards,” the shop owner told Reuters Television, refusing to give his name. “Two other soldiers came in, picked him up and took him away.”
The soldier was evacuated to a military hospital in Iraq and had undergone surgery. “The shooter was not apprehended,” a U.S. military spokesman said. One local resident said he saw a young man shoot the soldier in the head at close range.
The U.S. military said the soldier was one of its civil affairs specialists, trying to help communities with civilian projects. They have a key role in what Washington calls its battle for Iraqi hearts and minds.
U.S. officials blame die-hard supporters of fallen leader Saddam Hussein for attacks on their troops but many Iraqis say there is widespread anger at the occupation and the failure to provide basic services and security.
Apart from the mounting toll from hit-and-run tactics, the U.S. military is struggling to prevent sabotage of oil and power facilities and may now have to rethink troop movements with two missing soldiers feared abducted.
In a sign of the growing concern in Washington and among foreign companies eyeing Iraq, the Pentagon has sent a group of private experts to assess postwar reconstruction efforts.
A U.S. defence official said the five-person team will be in Iraq for up to 12 days and report to Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator.
“This team was not dispatched to go rescue Bremer because Bremer does not need rescuing. He is open to having assistance,” said Lawrence Di Rita, special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The visit follows a report issued this week by Kroll Inc., a risk consulting company, which told corporate clients that an Iraqi revolt against occupying forces was one of two most likely scenarios in 2003. The other was a so-called wobbly landing with some instability but not outright revolt.
Leader of Iraq`s Shi`ite Muslim majority Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim called during Friday prayers in the holy city of Najaf for Iraqis to try peaceful means of resistance first.
“However, if they do not get any results, then the people of Iraq may resort to military action,” he said, as quoted by the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran and monitored by the BBC.
“The Iraqis will have to choose their own future and determine the destiny of their own country,” said Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The White House said U.S. President George W. Bush was determined to stay the course despite mounting U.S. and British casualties.
“The president mourns the loss of every American, every Briton who was killed,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Twenty-one U.S. soldiers have been killed since Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1.
On Thursday, two soldiers and an Iraqi driver were killed in separate attacks on U.S. military targets. Six British soldiers were killed in the south on Tuesday. Nearly 20 U.S. and British soldiers were wounded in those incidents.
U.S. forces are also searching for two soldiers feared abducted after they went missing around 40 km (25 miles) north of Baghdad on Wednesday. The military said it had detained three Iraqis in connection with the disappearance.
Troops have used helicopters and ground forces in the hunt around the town of Balad.
U.S. military spokesman Major William Thurmond said commanders may now be more wary of putting a few soldiers in isolated locations.
“They were not within visual sight of any other soldiers — that`s why they were not noticed immediately,” he told reporters in Baghdad. “That might cause commanders on the ground to make changes as far as disposition of forces.”