TIKRIT, Iraq — Rather than trying to defeat the insurgency in Iraq militarily, U.S. commanders now taking charge here say they are focused on developing better intelligence and using unorthodox tactics to chip away at militant cells with help from Iraqi security forces.
As part of that strategy, commanders and their Iraqi allies say they have had informal contacts with Sunni Muslims who either support the insurgency or are active participants. Some of these Sunnis want to take part in the country's fledgling political process, intelligence officers say.
The overall strategy reflects the Pentagon's emphasis on turning over security responsibilities to Iraqis. The commanders say intelligence developed by Iraqi security forces is disrupting some insurgent cells while also leading to roundups of low- and mid-level insurgents.
"We won't be the ones to defeat this insurgency. It'll be the Iraqis themselves," said Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, who took over command late last month of four provinces north of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni Triangle. "This insurgency can go on low grade for a long time, and the Iraqis will eventually have to put it out."
After a brief dip following Jan. 30 elections, insurgent attacks have returned to preelection levels, intelligence officers say. Commanders concede that the core of the insurgency will fight indefinitely.
The insurgents are still able to "conduct spectacular attacks, suicide attacks that create mass casualties," Taluto said. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police and government officials have been killed or wounded.
"Nobody here is minimizing the insurgency," Taluto said from his spacious office at Saddam Hussein's former palace complex in Tikrit, the deposed leader's hometown. "We certainly respect it. These people are smart and committed. On the other hand, they're not 10 feet tall."
Commanders acknowledge that past U.S. intelligence efforts have been spotty, particularly in the early months of the insurgency in late 2003 and early 2004. They say top-level insurgent leaders are still able to direct a network of largely independent local cells whose attacks have crippled reconstruction efforts.
But they say several cells have been broken up by using Iraqi soldiers as undercover infiltrators. Cell members who are captured are told, falsely, that they were turned in by other cell members, intelligence officers said. They said the tactic had prompted some insurgents to provide the names of other cell members.
"If they think they've been dimed out by one of their own people, they'll start naming names," one intelligence officer said.
In addition to turning to Iraqis for better intelligence, the newly arriving commanders are creating small reconstruction projects designed to provide jobs for Iraqis. They say many Iraqis who plant roadside bombs are not committed insurgents but unemployed young men paid to mount attacks.
"That's the way to get security established -- get essential services, get jobs for people," said Army Brig. Gen. James Huggins, who took over last month as chief of staff for multinational forces. "This is just as important as good intelligence."
Even so, commanders say resentment toward the U.S. occupation remains so strong that the Vietnam-era concept of winning hearts and minds does not necessarily apply in Iraq. Instead, they are trying to deflect attention from U.S. forces while building public trust in the Iraqi army, police and political institutions.
"We'll never win their hearts and minds, but we will win their respect," said Army Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, an assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which took over control of greater Baghdad late last month.
The size and competence of the Iraqi security forces have been questioned by some U.S. congressional leaders. Last week, the Government Accountability Office accused the Pentagon of inflating the number of trained soldiers and police officers on duty.
Yet commanders say new Iraqi army and police units have improved intelligence-gathering through their knowledge of neighborhoods and local political currents.
And tips by citizens have led to several arrests of cell leaders and seizures of weapons and bomb-making equipment, commanders say. Many tips have come through toll-free lines. Callers are guaranteed anonymity and sometimes offered rewards. Billboards -- 250 in Baghdad alone -- and TV ads urge Iraqis to report suspicious activity.
In Baghdad, tip lines are producing 40 calls a week, said Army Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond.
As part of U.S. operations, government-run TV stations have aired tapes in which captured insurgents tearfully confess their complicity in deadly attacks. In addition, U.S. commanders are taking part in call-in shows on Iraqi TV -- such as "Kirkuk and the New Iraqi Future" in the north and "Good Morning Orange City" near the insurgent stronghold of Baqubah, known for its orange groves.