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Iraq Insurgency Showing Signs of Momentum

Analysts and some U.S. commanders say it could be too late to reverse the wave of violence. Sunnis are seen as the stronger, long-term threat.

June 26, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As this week's coordinated violence demonstrates, Iraq's insurgent movement is increasingly potent, riding a wave of anti-U.S. nationalism and religious extremism. Just days before an Iraqi government takes control of the country, experts and some commanders fear it may be too late to turn back the militant tide.

The much-anticipated wave of strikes preceding Wednesday's scheduled hand-over could intensify under the new interim government as Sunni Muslim insurgents seek to undermine it, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

"I think we're going to continue to see sensational attacks," said Army Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 101st Airborne Division commander who will oversee the reshaping of Iraq's fledgling security forces.

Long gone are the days when the insurgents were dismissed as a finite force ticketed for high-tech annihilation by superior U.S. firepower.

Wreaking havoc and derailing plans for reconstruction of this battered nation, the dominant guerrilla movement -- an unlikely Sunni alliance of hard-liners from the former regime, Islamic militants and anti-U.S. nationalists -- has taken over towns, blocked highways, bombed police stations, assassinated lawmakers and other "collaborators," and abducted civilians.

Although Shiite Muslim fighters took U.S. forces by surprise in an April uprising, the Sunni insurgents represent a stronger, long-term threat, experts agree. The fighters, commanders say, are overwhelmingly Iraqis, with a small but important contingent of foreign fighters who specialize in carrying out suicide bombings and other spectacular attacks, possibly including this week's coordinated strikes that killed more than 100 people.

"They are effective," said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational commander of U.S. troops here.

The insurgent force has picked up legions of part-time nationalist recruits enraged by the lengthy occupation and the mounting toll on civilians. Whether the result of U.S. or insurgent fire, the casualties are blamed on Americans.

The anti-U.S. momentum is evident in both the nation's urban centers and the palm-shrouded Sunni rural heartland, where resentment over military sweeps and the torturous pace of reconstruction is pervasive. Support for the insurgency ranges from quiet assent to participation in the fighting.

"We're talking about people who are the equivalent of the Minutemen," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who served as an advisor for the U.S.-led occupation here. "They pick up their weapons and join the fight and then go back to their homes and farms. It makes it so fluid. And the media functions as the town crier, like the calls from the minaret."

The nimble enemy has kept just far enough ahead of coalition forces to raise the question in Iraqi minds: Who will be here in the long run, the U.S. and its allies or the insurgents?

The characteristics of the insurgency in Iraq are familiar from earlier campaigns in Vietnam and elsewhere, Hoffman wrote in a recent paper: "A population will give its allegiance to the side that will best protect it."

Also like past insurgency campaigns, this one combines classic guerrilla tactics -- ambushes and other attacks on occupying troops -- with ruthless terror, including the massacres of religious worshipers and restaurant patrons and the beheading of hostages.

The insurgents' decentralized command structure, Hoffman said in an interview, echoes the atomized nature of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Thus, the arrest of deposed President Saddam Hussein in December was not nearly the intelligence windfall that U.S. authorities had predicted. Nor did his capture dry up funding for the insurgents.

Although U.S. officials have labeled Jordanian fugitive Abu Musab Zarqawi a mastermind in the wave of attacks that has shaken the country since last year, commanders say the insurgents' coordination is unclear.

"We can't find ... a particular command and control structure that leads to one or two or three particular nodes," Metz said. "But I'm confident there are some leaders who have the wealth to continue ... paying people to do business."

U.S. authorities have jailed dozens of cell chiefs but watched in frustration as the groups have regenerated and fought anew. "These kinds of networks, you chop off one part and the other part keeps on moving," Petraeus said.

The insurgents have other strengths: plentiful weapons (in many cases, looted from unguarded armories at the end of the invasion last year); easy mobility, in the form of a relatively modern highway system; and communications, in the form of cellphones and access to regional television channels such as Al Jazeera.

Defeating a force this entrenched and energized is difficult, commanders say.

"There are some insurgent leaders who wanted to talk to us," said Army Col. Dana Pittard of the 1st Infantry Division in Baqubah, an agricultural city northeast of Baghdad that was the site of fierce fighting Thursday. "But there are others who are hard-core and just don't get it."

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