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thedrifter
08-14-05, 07:05 AM
Attacks in Iraq last week reveal evolving insurgency
By LARRY KAPLOW, BOB DEANS
Cox News Service

BAGHDAD In just two vicious attacks last week, Iraqi insurgents killed 20 U.S. Marines, in what President Bush called "a grim reminder" of the increasingly lethal tactics faced by American troops in Iraq.

It was a reminder also that, as the war grinds on, the insurgents have evolved, using more powerful explosives - some shaped especially to penetrate heavy armor - and more sophisticated triggers for precision timing. They have also made use of improved intelligence, built on watching U.S. forces since they first arrived in Iraq in March, 2003.

"This is a very brutal, lethal and adaptive enemy," Army Gen. Carter Ham told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, hours after a powerful roadside bomb destroyed an amphibious armored vehicle, killing 14 Marines and their civilian translator, in the Anbar province west of Baghdad. "They are dangerous, and they certainly have a capability."

Disturbing as that attack was, Monday's ambush of six Marine snipers raised questions more troubling still. How, for instance, did a crack team of elite fighters on a covert mission wind up surrounded and unable to defend themselves long enough to summon help?

"They're awfully good, and the fact that a whole bunch of them were killed at once really could portend some bad things in terms of how the insurgents got the information they had," said Steven Metz, chairman of regional strategy with the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "Is this a signal that they have some sort of inside information, or was it just pure happenstance?"

By week's end, there were more such questions than answers coming from a U.S. military that has long acknowledged it has a very limited fix on the shifting size and capabilities of the nebulous Iraqi insurgency.

Independent analysts toss about numbers - roughly 20,000 Baathist holdouts, criminal elements and foreign jihadists is the current consensus - but the Pentagon assiduously avoids attempts to quantify the foe in a war that has left 1,823 Americans dead and another 13,769 wounded.

"This is not an expanding insurgency," U.S. Air Force Gen. Donald Alston told reporters in Baghdad last week. "What we're seeing is probably the opposite."

Some Americans, though, hear echoes of Vietnam in the way the military brass portray their fight with the insurgents as a war of attrition: 50 killed, 800 captured over the past week, Alston said, with an estimated 15,000 currently detained in Iraqi jails. That was before the launch of operation Quick Strike, an intensive offensive in which some 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces backed by warplanes hit back at areas thought to be insurgent holdouts in villages along the Euphrates River in Anbar.

With no better way to quantify success in Iraq, Bush is paying a price in the polls for the continuing U.S. losses there.

Just 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the war in Iraq - an all time low - while 59 percent disapprove, according to an Associated Press/Ipsos poll. The survey queried 1,000 adults nationwide between Aug. 1-3 and has a 3 percentage point margin of error.

Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said the numbers reflect public anxiety over the continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq.

"It has a profound effect on public opinion," said Bowman.

Americans may have grown weary of reading about the ups and downs of Iraq's struggle to write a new constitution by Aug. 15, "but they certainly take notice of X numbers of Marines killed," she said. "It reminds people of how difficult the situation is."

It was only last spring that the administration was suggesting that U.S. forces had gained the upper hand on an insurgency that Vice President Dick Cheney said in May was "in the last throes" of its existence. Even as he spoke, though, insurgents were conducting, on average, 70 attacks a day nationwide, a rate that remained remarkably constant throughout May, June and July, suggesting a sort of steady state of insurgent capability.

Perhaps recognizing that, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in June that the insurgency itself could last a dozen years or so. U.S. forces won't attempt to out last them, Rumsfeld said, but would, rather, continue to fight it until Iraqi forces are able to do so themselves.

As of last week, the U.S. State Department reckoned there are 80,300 Iraqi troops and another 95,400 police in various stages of being trained and equipped. Military officials and independent analysts have said it will take another year before those combined forces reach the level - about 240,000 - needed for Iraqis to secure their country on their own.

One reason the insurgency has grown so intractable, analysts say, is that Iraq, like Lebanon and the Palestinian territories before it, has developed a home-grown terrorist culture where none had existed before the war.

"Two years ago, the Iraqis did not know how to mount insurgent or terrorist operations and were heavily dependent on foreign jihadists to show them how to do things, how to make bombs, how to set up IEDs (improvised explosive devices, better known as roadside bombs), how to set up operational plans and do everything else for themselves," said Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq and military expert with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"Today they have internalized most of those lessons," Pollack told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, "and they are increasingly less dependent on foreigners for the know how."

That's one reason the U.S. military has a hard time getting a handle on the insurgency's strength. It also undercuts, however, the administration's argument that the insurgents are dancing to the tune of foreign troublemakers and not waging an Iraqi intifada instead.

Still, the insurgency has its limits. U.S. military officials have said that 95 percent of insurgents they capture or kill belong to the Sunni Muslim group. While Sunnis make up less than 20 percent of the Iraqi public, they enjoyed a privileged status under the regime of toppled leader Saddam Hussein and have been loathe to yield to the prospect of more representative governance.

And, last week's U.S. losses could be seen as a tragic consequence of success, in that the killings took place in what American generals see as the diminishing territory in which insurgents still enjoy the freedom to operate with some latitude.

Instead of holing up in safer areas, the Marines that were killed this week were pushing into insurgent strongholds as part of a larger mission to rip up insurgent sanctuaries running along the Euphrates River valley from the Syrian border to Baghdad.

"You have a more aggressive U.S. posture in Anbar," said former Pentagon official Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

To gut what U.S. troops call the insurgent "rat line," the Marines ventured into areas where Americans have limited freedom of movement then fanned out along predictable routes into areas where insurgents are active and have the ability to take their time setting up and triggering the kind of roadside bomb that destroyed the armored Marine carrier on Wednesday.

The result was less a pattern, said Cordesman, than a bad break for the Marines.

"You're going to have some bad days and bad weeks in combat," said Cordesman. "The real question is whether you're going to see a pattern. And it's also, 'Is this going to succeed?'"

Larry Kaplow's e-mail address is lkaplow(at) coxnews.com.

Bob Deans' e-mail address is bobdeans(at)coxnews.com.

Ellie