FALLOUJA, Iraq — Nearly two months after the capture of Saddam Hussein, the casualty rate among U.S. soldiers and Iraqis in insurgent attacks has accelerated, and much of this nation's Sunni Muslim heartland remains a perilous zone of conflict -- with bouts of violence also striking the Kurdish north and the Shiite south.
The most recent spate of bloodshed includes bombings last weekend in the northern cities of Irbil and Mosul as well as last month's suicide attack outside the main U.S. compound in Baghdad, blasts that claimed well over 100 lives.
Iraqi security forces, civilians and others deemed collaborators are now the major targets, and although attacks on U.S. troops have diminished in number, they remain lethal: 45 soldiers were killed in January, according to unofficial tallies, compared with 40 in December.
As U.S. forces prepared to head home in a massive rotation that would leave troops vulnerable to attack, front-line commanders interviewed in recent weeks expressed confidence that a measure of order had been restored after Hussein's capture. But they cautioned that the attacks might continue and possibly intensify as the U.S. occupation enters its second year this spring with fresh units of soldiers and Marines.
"I won't defeat all the enemy in my time. That's very clear," Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine said in this hostile city west of Baghdad, where U.S. troops typically would draw fire within an hour if they remained stationary. "I don't have the threat of a tank battalion rising out of the dust and coming after me. But I've got mortars, I've got rockets, and I've got small elements that are trying to chip away at our will."
The insurgents' goal, apart from breaking the will of American forces, remains the same as before Hussein was tracked down: to sow insecurity among Iraqis and disrupt the transition to Iraqi sovereignty scheduled for this summer.
As outgoing commanders reflect on their tumultuous months here, some wonder aloud what constitutes victory in a low-intensity conflict that seems destined to drag on.
"If the standard is, we reduce all incidents to zero, that would be a standard that no city in the world could be measured by," said Lt. Col. Steven Russell of the Army's 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, Hussein's former home base. "You will always have the hotheads out there, and those who will look for any reason, angle or cause to resist. But that does not characterize the majority of the population."
U.S. forces say they have struck a serious blow to the insurgent command structure, hunting down anti-coalition cells from the capital to the Syrian border.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands the 4th Infantry Division, told Pentagon reporters in a satellite hookup from Tikrit that loyalists of the former regime "have been brought to their knees." The capture of Hussein on Dec. 13, the general said, "was a major operational and psychological defeat for the enemy."
The arrest of Hussein and seizure of documents in his hide-out led to intelligence gains and probably disrupted funding sources, officials said. But various commanders in the field agreed that they hadn't noted a lasting insurgent retreat since Hussein emerged from his underground chamber south of Tikrit. "Anyone who wanted Saddam back as president emeritus now knows that won't happen," said Col. Joe Anderson, with the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, a onetime stronghold of Hussein's Baath Party. "But up here, I would say there has been no noticeable difference in any way, shape or form since the time he was captured."
The strategic northern city appeared under siege in November, as insurgents successfully targeted U.S. troops and ground fire brought down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters, killing 17 soldiers. But a fierce U.S. counteroffensive resulted in the arrest of hundreds of suspected insurgents and restored relative calm by mid-December -- although a bombing outside a police station Saturday killed nine people and wounded dozens more.
"There's still enough bad guys out there. This will not stop tomorrow," said Anderson, whose unit has already ceded principal duties in Mosul to an Army brigade from Ft. Lewis, Wash., using the new Stryker armored infantry carrier, which has wheels and is considered more mobile than traditional tracked vehicles. "The enemy has definitely been disrupted. They're definitely much worse off, in all categories. But they're not gone."
In Baghdad, commanders say intelligence arising from Hussein's arrest has helped them infiltrate the insurgent cell structure and its financial backbone. U.S. authorities have identified 14 distinct insurgent cells in Baghdad, with up to 300 operatives, although attacks are sometimes farmed out to paid "trigger-pullers." A loose network of former high-ranking military officers and Baath Party functionaries appears to provide financial support and some guidance.