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U.S. Adopts New Tactics to Counter Iraqi Foes

September 07, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BALAD, Iraq — Facing stubborn, guerrilla-style resistance, the U.S. military is shifting tactics: It is trading the conventional warfare it used to oust Saddam Hussein for a campaign of swifter, more nimble strikes.

The military is also seeking to improve its intelligence-gathering and shift routine security tasks to Iraqis while accelerating efforts to win the hearts and minds of an edgy civilian population.

The goal of the counterinsurgency strategy is to confront and destroy an elusive enemy whose persistent attacks have impeded troop and supply movements and slowed national reconstruction.

The U.S. military is trying to be smarter, aiming to eliminate the armed cells in assaults featuring overwhelming might and advanced technology -- while at the same time reinforcing vital supply routes, communication lines and logistics centers.

"We have to deny the enemy sanctuary," said Col. Frederick Rudesheim, an infantry brigade commander who led a large-scale assault last week on a suspected guerrilla safe haven near Tikrit. "Unless we get this under control, there is fertile ground for external influence."

Commanders throughout Iraq have scrapped heavy-handed search tactics to mollify complaints and are handing out soccer balls and candy to children. The military is directing millions of dollars toward Iraq's reconstruction, providing jobs to destitute young men who, officers fear, might otherwise be recruited to take up arms.

"I figure if someone has their stomach full and can feed their family, they're less likely to go out there and try and kill young Americans," said Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, a former quarterback at West Point who heads an infantry battalion based in Balad, north of Baghdad.

Some military officials speak of "Iraqization" of the conflict, evoking America's "Vietnamization" campaign more than three decades ago, under which the U.S. military gradually transferred responsibility for prosecuting the Vietnam War to the South Vietnamese.

But officials point to what they say are decisive differences: The armed opposition in Iraq has very limited popular backing, U.S. officials say, and there is no evidence of a national network directing the attacks.

"We're using Vietnam-type tactics, but I don't see a real guerrilla war in Iraq," said Capt. Todd Brown, who was leading a platoon in the assault. "There's just not that level of organization, of national hierarchy or popular support for the enemy."

Nonetheless, the daily attacks against coalition troops -- combined with acts of sabotage and large-scale, lethal car bombings -- have clearly exacerbated a climate of instability and sapped the morale of weary soldiers.

Whether the new tactics are slowing the number of daily attacks is not clear. Even harder to gauge is whether the U.S. can prevent major bombings, which are almost impossible to eliminate and can have significant political repercussions, as experience across the Middle East has shown.

U.S. troops came to Iraq to fight a conventional war featuring tanks, heavy artillery, fighter planes and all the other trappings of large-scale, modern conflict. The aftermath was widely expected to be no more than a mop-up operation. But today the U.S. military finds itself embroiled in a draining struggle that demands alternative tactics, different equipment and a distinct brand of soldiering.

As of last week, 287 U.S. soldiers had been killed in the Iraq war and more than 1,110 had been wounded. More than half of the American troop deaths occurred after President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1.

"Tanks are great for destroying stuff, but you can't completely destroy a place you're supposed to rebuild and protect," Sassaman said.

In fact, tank guns and howitzers are seldom fired here and serve largely as barriers at the many U.S. Army checkpoints.

The steady assaults on U.S. convoys have slowed down troop mobility in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the heartland of central and western Iraq that was the principal base of support for Saddam Hussein. The U.S. Army does not own the roads here. Large convoys now regularly receive protective air cover.

Combat units have been repositioned to provide protection for essential supply, communication and logistics posts, like the giant military airfield near Balad, called Anaconda, on the site of a former regime airbase. The enemy employs a textbook guerrilla tactic: hit rear-guard areas, which have relatively little protection.

"The enemy tends to flow where we're not," said Rudesheim, who heads the 3rd Combat Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.

Commanders have been forced to spend long hours combing prospective convoy routes for now-notorious improvised explosive devices -- homemade bombs fashioned from artillery shells, grenades, mortar rounds and other explosives that have struck with devastating force, producing many U.S. casualties.

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