Shadowland: The Hit List

When I said goodbye to Faris Assam, not quite a week ago, we were standing on the street outside a conference center in Madrid, where he'd been lobbying international donors to support the reconstruction of Iraq. I liked him the moment I met him. He was a technocrat, not a politician, an engineer whose confidence and competence helped him rise quickly under the occupation administration to be deputy mayor of the Iraqi capital. Assam, 44, bore himself with quiet dignity, smiled easily and shook hands warmly. "See you in Baghdad," he said.

But no. On Sunday evening, just hours after Assam got back home, he went to a crowded cafe to drink tea, play dominos and smoke a water-pipe with his friends. It was the first, festive night of Ramadan, and Assam was on top of the world. As one of his family members told the Washington Post's Theola Labbe, he was thinking he'd be able to use the money promised in Madrid "to turn Baghdad into heaven." Then two men walked up to Assam. One shot him in the head at point blank range. The other pumped three more rounds into him. Then they drove away into the Baghdad dark, leaving Faris Assam dead on the floor.

Bloody Sunday. The beginning of a very bloody week. And we're just now learning how much the administration's hopes, and the Iraqis', were set back by its violence.

In the morning the huge Rashid Hotel, a fortified structure above one of Saddam's old bunkers in the middle of the most heavily secured acreage in Baghdad, had been hit by a volley of rocket blasts. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who'd been inside, emerged visibly shaken. "We are getting the job done," he declared in a tremulous voice, "despite the desperate acts of a dying regime of criminals." And then Assam was killed. On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters was attacked, and police stations around the city were hit by a wave of suicide bombings that killed more than 35 people. The violence just keeps coming. And the message the Iraqi people are getting, in fact, is that it's the Americans and their friends who are dying.

Also killed on Sunday was Lt. Col. John Buehring, whose room at the Rashid was hit by a rocket. Buehring, 40, was a family man and the father of two boys aged 9 and 12. He was also a specialist in psychological operations, one of the two members of the Information Support Cell that advised the Coalition Provisional Authority about how to communicate with the Iraqi people.

He was nothing if not enthusiastic about his job. When Buehring's father was dying last August, according to his local paper in North Carolina, Buehring came home briefly to make arrangements, then quickly went back to a war zone that was supposed to be something else, something better than that. Like Assam, he was looking to bring hope, or at least help to restore order.

Buehring told an in-house Army publication that he'd produced "the progress charts showing who of the top 55 bad guys had been captured or killed." He was proud of the "Don't Damage the Infrastructure Campaign," to discourage looters from stealing bits and pieces of public utilities. And then there were the wanted posters offering rewards for everything from the capture of Saddam to information about power plant sabotage.

But all the posters and fliers in the world can't obliterate the image of that towering hotel, pocked with rocket blasts, where Buehring died.

No, let's not be defeatist. Good men and women, Iraqis, Americans and others, are risking their lives every day to make that country a better place. But let's get real. This war is not going to be won the way it's being fought right now. Not only more Iraqis will have to be involved, more Americans will, too. And it's going to get a lot rougher, because those fighting against the occupation have a whole lot better idea of what impresses the Iraqi people, whether with fear or respect, than the Americans do.

So does Al Qaeda. We don't know yet precisely how many would-be holy warriors from foreign countries have gotten involved in this fight. Their presence in Iraq under Saddam was negligible. But there's no question that U.S.-occupied Iraq -- like Soviet-occupied Afghanistan--has become a magnet for martyrs anxious to die in the fight against infidels. As if to underscore that growing danger, the U.S. government recently put up a stupendous $25 million reward, equal to the bounty on Saddam Hussein, for the head of a fellow traveler of Al Qaeda named Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, who's been traced moving in and out of the Iraq in the past.

There's no mystery about the way these guys think. It's laid out in a book by Al Qaeda's leading ideologue, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, written shortly before September 11, 2001. And if we'd all studied it a little closer at the beginning of this occupation, we'd have had a clearer idea just who would be targeted by the resistance now. The first objective, of course, is to kill Americans. But the "tools" the Americans use to "fight Islam" are also taken as legitimate targets in Zawahiri's doctrine: The United Nations (the August bombings); the international relief agencies "which are being used as a cover for espionage, proselytizing" (the Red Cross bombing); the rulers who are friendly to the Americans (like Faris Assam and others). Soon enough, if the terrorists are indeed following the Zawahiri doctrine, we'll also see attacks on multinational corporations, on international communications, and on international news agencies.

All, of course, are important to rebuild the country. But fewer and fewer of their people are willing to go there, or to stay, no matter how lucrative the contracts, no matter how satisfying the moral rewards for doing good. In Iraq, as this bloody week has made all too clear, nice guys don't just finish last, they finish dead.