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Random Violence Shadows Baghdad Residents

February 17, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Marwan Rassam’s restaurant is a Baghdad institution, famous for its pizzas and grilled meat sandwiches wrapped in flat ``saj″ bread.

Ordinary as that may seem, Rassam’s diner was bombed last year by extremists who have broadened their targets beyond Americans, Iraqi police and troops to include bakers, cigarette vendors and even employees of a perfume boutique.

``I’m like any other Iraqi nowadays, feeling that I am vulnerable and can die at any moment,″ Rassam, a Christian, said Friday.

In the past two weeks, mechanics, blacksmiths, bakers and liquor dealers have been killed in drive-by shootings or roadside bombings.

Two brothers working in an exclusive cologne and perfume shop in south Baghdad’s Maalif district were gunned down Friday inside the store. The killers left without taking anything, police said.

About an hour later, armed men attacked a nearby watch store. This time the staff was ready, grabbing guns from below the counter and chasing the assailants into the street.

They shot one dead, and U.S. soldiers sent in a robot to remove a grenade from the corpse.

Just why Iraqis with no clear ties to the U.S. military or Iraqi police are being killed or kidnapped in increasing numbers has become one of the most disturbing questions of the post-Saddam Hussein era.

In Rassam’s case, perhaps the young couples sitting at outside tables enraged Islamic extremists. Or the diner could have been targeted by militants wanting to kill policemen who regularly eat there. Nobody knows for sure _ except the bombers.

The 2004 bombing wounded several of Rassam’s patrons but caused no deaths. A year later, someone planted a bomb at the front door when the restaurant was closed, causing damage but no injuries.

Many blame the government for not securing the country. Others blame the Americans for failing to ensure law and order after overthrowing Saddam’s authoritarian regime in 2003.

Theories about the attacks abound, ranging from revenge for some past sleight, to extortion to the anti-Western sensibilities of Islamic extremists.

``Barbers are being killed for cutting people’s beards and removing hair from men’s faces,″ said Alaa Shakir Kamil, a 32-year-old barber shop owner in the eastern New Baghdad neighborhood. ``I stopped doing this and put a sign on my window saying I don’t trim beards or remove facial hair.″

Radical Muslims consider removing facial hair un-Islamic and vain. Religious extremists have also been blamed for bombing liquor stores and for killing vendors selling DVDs that might show scantily clad women or modern Western music.

``Gunmen warned my father to close his real estate agency, threatening to kill him because they regarded selling God’s land as forbidden,″ said 31-year-old Omar Ali, from Baghdad’s southern Dora neighborhood. ``He refused ... and five days later was killed.″

Iraqi political analyst Mustafa al-Ani predicted the violence will continue until Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s government takes control of the streets.

So much attention is directed at the war against the insurgents that the police have little time to fight crime, he said.

``The government doesn’t have time or resources to deal with the criminal side of the violence while it tries to also concentrate on terrorism,″ said al-Ani, an analyst for the Gulf Research Center. ``The targets are getting lower and lower. A year ago you could only kidnap the rich people. But now anyone is a target.″

In the some of the more recent incidents, a part-owner of the private Basra International Bank and his son were abducted Thursday by men wearing police uniforms.

On. Feb 1, a bomb planted near a tea stand killed eight men waiting for day labor in a largely Shiite area of Baghdad. Six days later, two bombs exploded targeting men selling DVDs near a downtown square, killing seven.

And on Feb. 12, explosives rigged to a motorcycle detonated near an eatery that has sold a sweet, hot pastry called ``kahyi″ in Baghdad for 40 years, seriously wounding its owner and six others.

The violence has turned once bustling commercial districts into no-go areas for long periods of the day.

``People are afraid to enter my shop because of the permanent Iraqi army checkpoint nearby,″ said 46-year-old Satar Hussein, whose household electrical appliance shop has suffered an 80 percent drop in sales.

Mohammed Lafta was forced to close one of his two bakeries after gunmen attacked both last year because Iraqi policemen often bought his bread. One attack killed Lafta’s brother, nephew and an employee.

``Such crimes can’t be justified. We must live and feed our families. Police should be able to buy bread anywhere,″ he said.

An Iraqi army officer criticized the government, saying its weakness allows thugs to blackmail, murder and carry out sectarian reprisals at will.

``No one hesitates to seek revenge over tribal disputes or kill people even if they raise their voices,″ said Maj. Gen. Jawad al-Daini. ``Today they kill a Shiite baker in a Shiite area and tomorrow they will kill a Sunni supermarket owner. They can kill anyone they think is against them.″

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Associated Press reporters Bushra Juhi, Sinan Salaheddin, Sameer N. Yacoub and Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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