Attack Is a Media Coup for Iraq Resistance, Experts Say
The assault on the Rashid Hotel by Iraqi resistance fighters Sunday was designed to grab attention by flaunting their ability to inflict casualties on U.S. soldiers and civilians, even those ensconced within the most secure compound in Iraq, according to terrorism experts and law enforcement officials in Baghdad.
The onslaught, in which one U.S. colonel was killed and 15 people were wounded, did not cause as many casualties as previous attacks on other high-profile targets in the capital. But it exhibited the growing sophistication of the opposition’s tactics and raised hard questions about whether it would be possible to stem such attacks.
Early today, the resistance struck again, detonating an ambulance packed with explosives at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. A U.S. military official said that at least 10 people were killed in the attack.
Toby Dodge, a terrorism expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, called the attack on the Rashid “a coup for the guys who did it.”
“Politically, it shows people that they can deploy at will.... By attacking the most famous landmark in the compound, they are saying, ‘We rule the streets. You don’t,’ ” he said.
Jabber Habib, a political science professor at Baghdad University, agreed. “They are picking targets for their media value,” he said, noting that the hotel is well known as the Baghdad residence of many civilian members of the American-led coalition, as well as some senior U.S. military officers.
Nameer Nuiammy, who knows members of the resistance and sympathizes with them, described the attack -- which came as Paul D. Wolfowitz, the No. 2 Pentagon official, was staying at the hotel -- as a success.
“There is a symbolic touch to it,” he said. “Because the Americans are living there and the deputy secretary of Defense was there, and even if he was only shocked and panicked, this will be registered as a victory for the attackers.”
The hotel has long been a landmark for Iraqis. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, it was the place where dignitaries often stayed and well-off Iraqis celebrated their weddings and honeymoons. Uday Hussein, the dictator’s older son, held parties there, as did other members of the Iraqi president’s inner circle.
It was famous for an entry hall mosaic of former President Bush, which guests had to trample on as they entered the hotel in a symbolic insult to the man viewed by Hussein as responsible for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. (The U.S.-led coalition has scrubbed out Bush’s image.)
The attack on the hotel, which is within the “green zone,” a highly secure area of several square miles -- the only one in Baghdad within which the Americans and coalition forces can move with relative freedom -- was particularly audacious because it was executed at relatively close range, U.S. officials said.
It represented the first serious damage to a building and individuals within the secure area, which, with its multiple checkpoints, high sandbags and double helixes of razor wire, had become a symbol of the embattled American occupation.
An attack on the hotel on Sept. 27 struck the side of the building, but there were no major injuries and the hotel remained habitable. After Sunday’s attack, the hotel was evacuated. In the earlier incident, only one round struck the hotel; this time, eight to 10 rocket rounds hit the hotel.
“They are getting better,” said a member of the U.S. military police who responded to both incidents and said they involved the same kind of homemade explosive device. The resistance’s ability to launch attacks has increased dramatically over the last three months, doubling from about 12 to 25 a day, Pentagon figures show.
Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, emphasized that the attack’s increased precision and the fact that it was within the heavily fortified compound showed “careful preparation.”
“This is not a soft target in comparison with other possible targets in Iraq,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a hardened target, and given that it’s a hardened target, the choice of a rocket attack is significant, because to fire these weapons requires some training, some preparation, reconnaissance. It really shows the coalition is dealing with sophisticated, open terrorism.... It’s not coming from one source.”
His analysis was echoed by the coalition’s administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, who made a round of appearances on network talk shows Sunday. His comments marked an increasing willingness by officials in the occupation authority to recognize the obstacles posed by the opposition. While Bremer denied that the resistance groups were getting stronger, he agreed that they were “more sophisticated.”
“What we’re seeing is -- as we did today with this rocket attack -- a more sophisticated use of technology,” he said, adding that in particular, they’re using improvised explosive devices that have been carefully placed along roads and triggered by remote-controlled devices like garage openers or cellphones.
“Some of this technology probably came to them from professional terrorists. There’s some cross-fertilization here,” Bremer added.
There was little disagreement on the latter point. “We are looking at a series of insurgencies: One is Islamic nationalist. One is remnants of the ex-regime. One is generalized frustration with the occupation,” said Dodge, of the Royal Institute.
Baghdad University’s Habib said the resistance’s lack of any political ideology might also be a symptom of the diverse opposition forces, whose ultimate goals for Iraq diverge sharply. Islamists and Al Qaeda sympathizers would like to see a theocratic state while many former members of Hussein’s Baath Party would welcome a return to a secular regime as long as they regained power.
In other places with resistance movements, such as the Palestinian territories and Northern Ireland, there are typically political and military wings, Habib said. “This resistance has no political ideas, or wings, or leaders or spokesmen,” he added.
However, Iraqis are loath to speak out against the resistance because they in some ways sympathize with fighters who stand up to the powerful coalition. “In private discussions, Iraqis will condemn the resistance, but they won’t speak out,” Habib said. Resistance sympathizers and those who track the attacks say the guerrillas’ goal is to send a message as well as to hurt Americans and undermine morale within the American-led coalition in Iraq and at home.
For instance, Sunday’s attack, coming at the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, played to those groups in Iraq that view armed resistance to the Americans as jihad: a holy struggle against the infidel. But the target choice played to their sense of frustration that the Americans have taken over the most visible symbols of the former regime’s power and influence.
Nuiammy, who spoke in the bare office he shares with other salesmen at one of Baghdad’s used-car lots, denied he represented any part of the resistance, but he said he was “an Iraqi citizen, a defender of Iraq, and if it is necessary, I will use weapons.” However, he frequently used the word “we” to describe the resistance’s tactics and motives.
“At the beginning, the operations were simple -- just to test the American position,” he said. “Now, day after day, it is getting stronger and more sophisticated. Every operation now is organized; nothing is left to chance. There is planning, surveillance, gathering information, some intelligence.... We can launch these attacks from anywhere, from rooftops, from the other side of the [Tigris] river.”
Most worrisome for the coalition is that there is no easy way out of the violence.
Wilkinson, the St. Andrews terrorism expert, advocates involving the U.N. and handing over substantial military authority to international troops. However, few countries appear willing to risk sending soldiers into a situation where they could end up easy targets. “Internationalization is the answer, but it’s not going to happen,” Dodge said.
“And that leaves you with a big mess and an unsustainable level of casualties leading up to a presidential election.”
Staff writer Janet Hook of The Times’ Washington Bureau contributed to this report.