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Insurgents in Iraq seen shifting focus

A move to civilian, `soft' targets noted

BAGHDAD -- The New Year's Eve car bombing of an upscale Baghdad restaurant, which killed eight people, was a sign that opponents of the US-led occupation forces may be shifting to civilian targets, US and Iraqi officials said yesterday.

The so-called "hard targets" in Baghdad -- like coalition complexes and Iraqi police stations -- are increasingly well-guarded, pushing insurgents toward soft targets, like Nabil Restaurant, said a US military officer with the First Armored Division. He spoke on the condition of anonymity. "When terrorists can target coalition forces or Iraqi police," they will, said Lieutenant General Ahmed Kadhem, deputy Iraqi interior minister and Baghdad chief of police. "If they can't, they go to an easier target, aiming at civilians."

He said security was being increased around hospitals and government buildings, and he called on schools to put up checkpoints and keep cars off their campuses.

Assailants have previously bombed civilian targets, including the Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Both organizations pulled most of their foreign staff out of Iraq after those deadly attacks.

In a city where sandbagged checkpoints, cement barriers, and armed guards protect many potential targets, the Nabil Restaurant was easy prey.

Situated on a busy street, it was protected by just one armed guard and had no cement barriers or sandbags to shield wealthy patrons from the blast of the car bomb, which detonated Wednesday night as Iraqis and Westerners celebrated.

Colonel Ralph Baker, commander of the Second Brigade of the First Armored Division, said the blast was caused by a car booby-trapped with about 500 pounds of explosives. He said reports that it was a suicide bomb attack were false, and that witnesses said they saw a man running from a vehicle before the explosion.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Baker said the US military and Iraqi police were following up leads.

Iraqi witnesses were cooperating with the investigation in the attack "clearly carried out by people who don't want us here, don't want the country rebuilt," he said. Iraqi police pulled four bodies from the rubble in the immediate aftermath of the blast and American soldiers later found another four bodies in the shattered restaurant, said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Jones of the First Armored Division, which is responsible for security in Baghdad. There were no reports that foreigners were killed. Two hospitals reported treating 35 people wounded in the blast.The foes of the US-led occupation "want to slow down and stop the progress toward normalcy in Iraq," Jones said. "And what's more normal than having a New Year's Eve dinner with friends and family at a restaurant?" The attack on Nabil was the latest in a string of bombings in Baghdad.

Earlier Wednesday evening, a bomb hidden in shrubs outside another Baghdad restaurant exploded as a US military convoy passed, wounding three American soldiers and three Iraqi civilians, the military said. Iraqi bystanders said one Iraqi was killed.

Also Wednesday, a roadside bomb apparently aimed at a US military convoy killed an 8-year-old Iraqi boy.

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