U.S. Finds War in Iraq Is Far From Finished
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.
“Clearly, they are emboldened by success,” said a senior military official in Washington. “You have to go in and tell them: ‘We’re gonna do what we did in Germany and Japan. We’re gonna write your constitution. We’re gonna install your government. We’re gonna write your laws. We’re gonna watch your every move for a decade, and then maybe you’ll get a chance to do it yourself.’ ”
The limited resistance put up by Iraqi military forces during major combat operations may also be having an effect.
“It may sound a little strange to say it, but because we didn’t fight in Fallouja and Tikrit, probably the bad guys have made it back into the community and we’re going to have to move them out,” a senior Bush administration official said recently.
Nash, the foreign relations analyst, believes that the United States missed the chance to establish itself as the unequivocal authority when the war ended. “When Baghdad fell is when you establish yourself; it’s when you set the rules. If you miss the opportunity to do it then, it’s not impossible, but it’s harder,” he said. “Resistance feeds resistance -- the bad guys have had a chance to get organized.”
The environment of Iraq -- a mixture of dense urban, rural desert and river-village societies -- does not compare readily with situations U.S. soldiers faced in other recent wars.
In Afghanistan, the United States never purported to be an occupation force, and although its troops have been subject to scattered guerrilla-style attacks, there was little widespread animosity.
In the Balkan conflicts, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo both involved U.N. mandates, which gave an international flavor to the peacekeeping forces, making U.S. soldiers less of a clear target.
But perhaps most importantly, in all three places, the local people appeared to be largely confident that the U.S. presence would be temporary, and the majority of the population favored the U.S. presence.
In Iraq, years of vilification of the U.S. have compounded Iraqi uncertainty about America’s intentions -- a problem worsened by the continuing communications difficulties of the U.S.-led occupation authority, which still has trouble reaching Iraqis with basic information because of weak television signals and the limited access of many Iraqis to mass media.
Furthermore, many members of the sizable Sunni minority, who prospered under Hussein, perceive themselves as losing rather than gaining ground as a result of the U.S. presence and are willing to offer tacit, if not outright, support for those who want to fight the U.S.-led troops.
“The Sunni population has every reason to destabilize the situation, since they know that when there are elections, they are going to get the short end of the stick,” said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
At the Pentagon and the White House and among military experts, there is a growing consensus that there are at least three forces involved in efforts to destabilize the country: Hussein loyalists, foreign fighters and those angry at living conditions since U.S.-led forces routed the Hussein regime.
Discontented members of Hussein’s ruling Baath Party, especially in the area of central Iraq known as the Sunni triangle, have the money to finance resistance. This makes a dangerous combination with the presence of a number of Fedayeen, paramilitary fighters loyal to Hussein.
There have been at least two execution-style attacks in the last two weeks in which U.S. soldiers who were talking with or helping civilian Iraqis were shot at close range near the base of the neck. In one case, in which a soldier was helping Iraqis line up to buy cooking fuel, the shooting was lethal; in the second attack, which occurred Friday in a crowded shopping area, the soldier was critically wounded.
“We ended major combat operations because the Iraqi army had disappeared, but what we don’t have [under control] is the Saddam Fedayeen and Baath leadership, who are trying to disrupt the coalition efforts,” said a senior military official in Iraq.
Nash believes “that there is enough residual regime in place that they are starting to build a constituency.”
The second group, foreign fighters, encompasses anti-American Al Qaeda-type characters from Syria and Jordan, among other nations, as well as possible agent provocateurs from Iran, who may be fomenting trouble in Shiite Muslim-dominated southern Iraq. In the last two weeks, Iraqi police in Baghdad picked up a group of Palestinians and Jordanians who are being held for questioning by the Americans.
Military officials acknowledge that they have little control of the Iraqi borders and that the situation is unlikely to improve. In the last week, U.S. and British soldiers have faced serious antagonism in the south, with the killing of six British military police officers in Majar Kabir, a town near Amarah, as well as the ambush killing of a U.S. soldier investigating a car theft in Najaf.
The third group is a hodgepodge of people frustrated with the lack of services and common criminals. Hussein released large numbers of the latter last fall during a general amnesty.
None of the attacks are thought to be organized on a national or even a regional basis, but they don’t need to be to achieve their goal of undermining the American-led coalition’s effort to stabilize and rebuild the country.
“This is the danger of being an occupation force -- you breed resentment the longer you stay,” said the Cato Institute’s Pena. “What we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.”
“The natural tendency is to stay to fix the problem because after all we’re Americans, we stay and fix the problems, but the reality is to accept that there are some things even superpowers can’t do.”
Times staff writers Esther Schrader in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Baghdad contributed to this report.