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U.S. Puts Its Afghanistan War Tactic to Use in Iraq

June 14, 2003|Paul Richter and Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With this week's operations in central Iraq, U.S. forces are sending a signal that America will use superior force to crush resistance wherever it arises.

Finding themselves under daily fire more than a month after President Bush announced the end of major combat in Iraq, U.S. commanders have taken a page from the Afghanistan campaign: They are emulating Operation Anaconda, in which American forces killed hundreds of regrouping Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The target this time is the remnants of Saddam Hussein's forces who have been mounting a harassment campaign that has contributed to a U.S. death toll of 45 since May 1 -- including 10 this month.

American forces have fought back with a broad sweep that U.S. authorities say has killed nearly 100 Iraqis this week, including an attack on a training camp northwest of Baghdad, and a battle late Thursday about 45 miles north of Baghdad in which seven Iraqis were killed.

In Thursday's action, U.S. forces chased Iraqi fighters who had attacked an American tank patrol. Lt. Col. Andy Fowler, commander of the troops involved, said the soldiers returned fire after someone shot at them.

He acknowledged that only two of the seven wore the uniform of the Fedayeen Saddam militia and that the five others were locals. Residents said the other five were farmers.

"I will tell you that there are still those that are loyal to a regime that is no longer in power," Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of ground forces in Iraq, told reporters Friday in a videoconference from Baghdad. "We will continue to have to seek out

If U.S. forces can prevent the guerrillas from gathering in groups, they can keep them not only from attacking with strength, but also from training and reorganizing.

As in Anaconda, the U.S. strikes "don't destroy all resistance," said Michael Vickers, a former Army Special Forces and intelligence officer who is at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "But they can reduce it to a much lower intensity."

Yet while the use of massive force -- 4,000 soldiers participated in one operation this week alone -- might achieve military goals, it risks alienating many Iraqis upon whose support the U.S. reconstruction of the country depends.

U.S. commanders contend that the surge in recent attacks against Americans in Iraq does not represent a full-scale guerrilla war fed by discontent over the occupation. Yet the military's aggressive actions signal a new determination to snuff out, as quickly as possible, attacks that are jeopardizing the U.S. reconstruction and could, in time, erode American political support for the war as well.

The "hot spots" of resistance are largely confined to the so-called Sunni Triangle within 100 miles of Baghdad that is populated by the Sunni Muslims who were most loyal to Hussein. In fact, a pro-U.S. politician, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, has alleged that Hussein could be hiding in the area.

Even so, the attacks suggest that U.S. leaders misjudged how many troops the job would require, and the enthusiasm with which Iraqis would greet American forces.

Bush administration officials wanted to keep the U.S. troop numbers as small as possible in the postwar period, believing that with a small "footprint," the American presence would seem less like an oppressive military occupation.

Yet "if we had troops all over this area, maybe we wouldn't have needed the operations this week," said Daniel Goure, a former defense official and vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia research organization.

He said the continuing increase in the number of U.S. troops in the country -- now approaching 200,000 -- is an acknowledgment of this.

The Hussein loyalists and foreign Islamic militants who are assaulting U.S. forces appear to be hoping that through a war of attrition they can persuade Americans to pull out.

At a rate of about one a day since May 1, the loss of U.S. troops probably isn't enough to turn the American public against the reconstruction effort, many experts agree. But if the losses continue, that could change, especially if the Iraqis were able to kill a large number in one sensational attack, the experts say.

The areas where American troops are concentrated in large numbers, such as military camps, are the most heavily protected.

The Iraqi fighters probably will be able to continue ambushes with the rocket-propelled grenades, land mines and AK-47 assault rifles they have in abundance. And U.S. commanders acknowledge that enemy combatants have been using more sophisticated techniques in recent days. Even so, the Iraqi capabilities are limited: Rocket-propelled grenades have little use against tanks, and only limited use against armored personnel carriers, experts say.

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