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Lack of Police Records Renders Clues Useless in Iraq Bombing

By David Johnston

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Investigators have recovered a severed hand, an Iraqi license plate and vehicle parts bearing a unique identification number from a Russian flatbed truck that carried the tremendous bomb that exploded on Aug. 19 outside the U.N. mission in Baghdad, senior government officials have said.

Normally, a rich collection of clues like these is enough to crack just about any criminal case in the United States. It was this kind of physical evidence that enabled investigators to quickly solve the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.

But the evidence so far has proved to be of little help in Iraq, where a suicide bomber struck again on Monday at the U.N. mission in Baghdad, killing himself and an Iraqi police officer, the officials said.

The problem, investigators said, is that classic crime-solving techniques rapidly run into the harsh realities of postwar Iraq, which is almost devoid of police records and motor vehicle registration files, not to speak of more exotic items like databases of fingerprints or DNA.

Some investigators have given up writing down confusing Baghdad addresses by street and number, resorting instead to a handheld Global Positioning System unit.

“There are unique challenges over there,” said Larry Mefford, a senior FBI official in charge of counterterrorism investigations. “But we’re making headway, and we’re still in the mode of collecting information to see if we can better understand who is behind the bombings.”

The first bombing at the U.N. compound in Baghdad killed 23 people, including three Americans and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy to Iraq. That and other large attacks, like the assaults on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad on Aug. 7 and on the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf on Aug. 29, have underscored the fragility of the peace in Iraq and the tenacity of the resistance to the American-led occupation.

They also point to the futility, to date, of efforts to bring the bombers to justice.

In the absence of a fully functioning Iraqi police force or national intelligence service, agencies like the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division and the FBI have taken on a larger role. In a few cases in the past, the FBI has taken charge of overseas investigations, like the inquiry into the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

U.S. authorities suspect that the bombings may have been carried out by loyalists to Saddam Hussein’s government, possibly aided by followers of al-Qaida or other terror networks. But so far, investigators have been stymied in establishing with certainty not only who is behind the bombings but also who has been plotting the smaller but often lethal roadside attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqis working with the occupation forces.