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U.S. Finds War in Iraq Is Far From Finished

Guerrilla-style attacks are growing. A military official vows to stay the course in quelling resistance and rebuilding the nation.

June 29, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Facing a marked increase in the frequency and brazenness of attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq in the last two weeks, military officials are for the first time speaking more openly about the potential for a long-term fight to quell the resistance to the American presence.

Although the term is rarely used at the Pentagon, from every description by military officials, what U.S. troops face on the ground in Iraq has all the markings of a guerrilla war -- albeit one in which there are multiple opposition groups rather than a single movement.

The rising opposition could further hamper the civilian reconstruction and delay the military's exit from the country, according to military experts.

"The first clear message is: This war is not over. It's not ended," a senior military official in Iraq said Saturday. "All of us in uniform are targets, we're subject to being engaged."

The official said that the Americans would not give up until they had vanquished the resisters, but he added that the war would not be over until every Iraqi was working actively with the Americans to defeat what he called "the enemies of Iraq."

The statistics paint a worrisome picture. Since President Bush declared an end to the major combat phase of the war in Iraq on May 1, 62 U.S. troops have been killed, according to a count based on Defense Department press releases. Of those, 22 died as a result of enemy attacks, 36 in accidents and four in incidents whose cause is under investigation.

More revealing, however, is that the number of deaths from hostile fire has more than doubled between May and June. Six Americans were killed in May in enemy attacks, while 16 died in June as of Saturday.

Until the last few days, U.S. military officials had insisted that the attacks were merely a byproduct of the final rooting out of the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. Now they are beginning to float the idea that U.S. forces face several different opposition forces -- and military experts outside the government concur with that assessment.

"There are disgruntled Iraqis, upset about house searches or whatever, who might throw rocks or the occasional grenade," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And at the other end of the spectrum, there are members of the old regime, reinforced by foreign fighters, that are looking more organized every day."

On Saturday, U.S. forces found the bodies of two U.S. soldiers who disappeared with their Humvee while on guard duty at a captured munitions storage depot outside Baghdad earlier in the week. Those killings appear to have been carried out with "the upper levels of sophistication," Nash said. It is a difficult operation to snatch an enemy combatant and his equipment, he noted.

Grenade and small-arms attacks also appear to be continuing unabated -- a couple are reported almost daily.

"We have a soldier wounded or killed every other day" in the Baghdad area, said Maj. Scott Slaten, a public affairs officer for the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for Iraq's capital. "Is it slowing us down? Yes, because some soldiers who would otherwise be doing reconstruction we have to use for security. Every attack means we're going to have to be here a little longer."

For troops on the ground, there is a constant, uneasy sense that nothing and no one are what they seem. Civilians have approached checkpoints and lobbed grenades, and canvas-sided Humvees have become a liability.

"You're not sure who your enemy is," said Sgt. Gary Qualls, who is stationed at the U.S. military's base in Ramadi, a town in the heart of the Sunni Muslim area north and west of Baghdad that is long loyal to Hussein. "You don't know who to trust."

As attacks continue, troops tend to act more defensively, keeping Iraqis at a greater distance, their guns at the ready. That, in turn, estranges them from the Iraqi people, fueling Iraqi fears that the soldiers are occupiers rather than liberators.

Still, military officials say they believe that the security situation overall has improved in the country. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, when asked Friday whether the fighting was turning into a guerrilla war, said, "I don't know that I would use the word."

At a Pentagon briefing last week, however, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the security situation was "a little uneven in the country."

Military experts inside and outside the Pentagon said they fear that the U.S. has failed to assert itself strongly enough on the ground in Iraq because of political pressure to send a message that American forces would leave the country as soon as possible. That may have emboldened the opposition to try to speed the U.S. military's departure, with each killing or act of sabotage helping recruit more foot soldiers for the resistance.

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