TIME: Terrorists Home In On Australians


When Sabah Aziz trudged past the police officers at the checkpoint outside Baghdad's al-Hamra hotel just before 7 a.m. on Jan. 19, he brushed off their invitation to stop for breakfast. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Aziz. People said he'd gone insane when his only son was executed for deserting Saddam Hussein's army. He walked out on his wife and daughter, roaming their suburb but never returning home. Locals cared for him, leaving out food and blankets. On this Wednesday morning, making his way between the blast barriers and "dragon's teeth" road spikes at the checkpoint, Aziz told the police officers, "I want to walk." Turning left on the four-lane road cutting through the capital's Jadriyah district, he headed east in the direction of the Australian embassy. In front of him a garbage truck stopped, and its driver hopped out to collect the rubbish bags left out on the pavement. This early, the Jadriyah road was quiet. Shops were still shuttered; a few pedestrians and the odd car went by. The Australian soldiers in their nine-story barracks - set up in the shell of a partly built apartment block in front of the Australian embassy - peered out as they do around the clock, scanning for potential threats.

Just after seven, a semi-trailer truck, minus its trailer, approached from the south at high speed. The driver's face was shrouded in a traditional Arab scarf, or yeshmargh. He flashed his lights and blared his horn for a bus to get out of his way. "He accelerated as he passed me," recalls the bus driver. Just as Aziz was about to cross the street, and the garbage collector was stepping back to his vehicle, the truck reached the earth-filled blast barriers around the barracks and embassy. According to an Iraqi guard at a nearby compound, the driver jumped from the cab of the truck, slipped into a waiting car and sped off. But most witnesses say he drove headlong into the defenses. When the truck hit, it exploded.

The blast hurled concrete debris, bitumen wrenched from the road and shrapnel from what appeared to be artillery shells over a radius of three city blocks. It gouged a 2-m-deep, 8-m-wide crater into the street; the shock wave shattered windows streets away, including all those on the al-Hamra hotel's east side.

On the Jadriyah road, facing the embassy, the garbage collector lay dead. Sabah's bloodied body was found by soldiers and identified by one of the police officers at the al-Hamra checkpoint. A hotel security guard took his body to the morgue and collected donations for his funeral. At least eight other civilians were wounded, including a 10-year-old boy who was rushed to hospital in the back of a police car, his face and arm gushing crimson. Behind their carefully positioned blast walls, sandbags and bunkers, the Australians survived; two were slightly wounded, but called home later to reassure their families. The remains of the bomber have not been found.

Some Australian government ministers asserted that there was no indication that Australians had been specifically targeted. But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said: "The vehicle was clearly directed toward the apartment block ... which is adjacent to the embassy ... So they were aiming at our embassy." In fact, an attack like last week's was all but inevitable. Australian soldiers and military intelligence officers have been aware for some time that insurgent reconnaissance teams were casing the two-story embassy. Throughout last year, mortars and rockets were intermittently fired into the area around the embassy and the hotel opposite; the insurgents who launched them clearly didn't care what building they hit. On the afternoon of Oct. 17, a line of 120-mm mortars marched across Jadriyah, falling closer and closer to the embassy, as if the mortarman were fine-tuning his coordinates. The final mortar sailed over the Australians' heads and onto the garage of a house opposite the embassy; nobody was injured. A few hours later, lights in the houses near the embassy blacked out when a car bomb exploded at a roundabout 400 m down the road. It was the second car bomb near the embassy in eight months: the first went off near a small hotel less than 100 m from the embassy, killing a young boy. On Oct. 26, three Australian soldiers were wounded when their light armored vehicles were hit by an improvised roadside bomb at the same roundabout where the car bomb had exploded nine days earlier.

Responsibility for the attack on the patrol was quickly claimed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi's al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group. Officials in Canberra claimed the vehicles were not hit specifically because they were Australian, but a post boasting of the attack on a Zarqawi-linked website noted the soldiers' nationality. Even if the intention had been to strike U.S. or Iraqi troops, the men who triggered the bomb by remote control would have known they were about to hit Australians, who wear distinctive camouflage fatigues and drive different vehicles from the Americans. Several times, when this Australian reporter has been interviewing insurgents, they have pointed out passing Australian patrols. Once, an Iraqi fighter gestured toward a patrol and mimicked the sound of an explosion: "Australian - boom!"

Hours after the embassy truck bombing, Zarqawi's group was on the Web, taking responsibility for four car bombings across Baghdad, including one "near the Australian embassy." That the group would deem Australians as fair game is hardly news; all those who support democracy in Iraq - Iraqis and foreigners alike - are targets of the insurgents. A document Zarqawi's organization posted on the Web last April left no doubt. Claiming that the burning and mutilation of four American security contractors in Fallujah was justified under Islamic law, it listed Australians among "enemy" nationals: "Japan by helping Americans they became a warrior state like Britain, Spain, Australia and others and is seeking for its bad fate," the statement said, adding: "Mujahids (holy warriors) have the right to kill their prisoners and behead them, no attention will be brought for who is alleging that prisoners are 'civilians,' there is no such idiom in our jurisdiction."

With the insurgency far from over, and no apparent shortage of men prepared to die in the cause of holy war, Australians and their interests will surely be attacked again - and more innocents like Sabah Aziz will pay the price.