Iraqi Insurgency Is as Lethal as Ever Since Hussein’s Capture

Times Staff Writer

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.

Eight of the Baghdad cells have been disrupted so far, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, told reporters in Baghdad on Monday. But Dempsey acknowledged that some might “regenerate.”

Moreover, the insurgency’s decentralized organizational scheme remains shadowy. U.S. officials don’t seem to know for certain if there are links among the suicide attackers of Irbil, the ambush squads of Fallouja, the mortar men of Tikrit and the bomb makers of Baghdad. Loyalists of the former regime still represent by far the primary threat, officials say, although the presence of foreign fighters and Islamic militants -- believed to make up the bulk of suicide bombers -- may be on the rise.

U.S. officials have not budged from their estimate that about 5,000 insurgents are arrayed against the American-led coalition nationwide. But almost twice that many people have been detained for alleged anti-coalition activity.

In the meantime, threats shadow U.S. helicopters in the air and armed convoys on the ground -- military traffic that is swelling as tens of thousands of troops enter and exit Iraq in an intensely choreographed switch-over of forces scheduled to last through the spring, the largest such move since World War II. It is a period of high vulnerability, especially along the roads, authorities agree.

The military has enhanced its ability to detect and avoid roadside bombs, dispatching crews to sweep suspect routes and focusing forces on capturing and killing bomb makers -- including the “rocket man,” a former Iraqi air force colonel and scientist implicated in bomb manufacturing who was arrested in Fallouja. But insurgents have made the devices more deadly, packing artillery shells, other explosives and metal shrapnel into the charges placed along the highways and back roads of Iraq.

“As we make progress, the enemy makes progress,” said Gen. Larry R. Ellis, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, who was visiting troops in Mosul last week. “What we’ve got to do is outthink the enemy and move faster than the enemy.”

Throughout Iraq, U.S. authorities are gradually ceding security duties to the expanding legions of Iraqi police and civil defense units, who must deal with the constant threat of retaliation -- and are much more exposed than their coalition allies. More than 300 Iraqi police and security personnel -- including at least six police chiefs -- have been killed since May.

U.S. commanders publicly laud the bravery of their Iraqi counterparts. But relations between police and the U.S. military have often been strained. All agree that Iraqi authorities are not ready to rein in the violence without U.S. help anytime soon.

Here in Fallouja, things started out badly in September when arriving soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division shot and killed eight police officers in an apparent case of mistaken identity. For strategic purposes, U.S. commanders have broken Fallouja, a city of 250,000, into districts named after sites in the New York City area. A major bridge over the Euphrates is known as the George Washington. The roughest zone, along the Euphrates at the city’s western edge, is code-named the Bronx, say officers of the 1st Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which patrols the town.

“You get down to some parts of the Bronx and it’s tough,” said Drinkwine, a former hockey player at West Point who commands the 1st Battalion. “Sometimes you feel like you’re wearing a Boston Red Sox hat.”

Attacks against U.S. forces in the Fallouja area dropped sharply for about a week after Hussein’s capture, said Col. Jefforey Smith, commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, which occupies the zone. But the attacks edged back up.

Military authorities are hopeful that in the coming months, a new influx of U.S. aid will help foster goodwill among U.S. forces, police and hostile populations. Young men in places such as Fallouja often turn to the insurgency not for ideological reasons, officials say, but because firing off an AK-47 or rocket-propelled grenade at a passing convoy is one of the few reliable sources of income.

But commanders acknowledge that there is no immediate solution to the instability in this fractious land where resentment of America runs high and insurgent forces seem determined to keep on exacting casualties, military and civilian.

“Even if we hand out lollipops to these people, that’s not to say they’re going to love us,” Lt. Col. Russell said in Tikrit. “They will always have a bit of reservation, which is understandable, and we will always provide assistance to them, as they need it, but will be on guard for those who would cause problems.”

Times staff writer John Hendren in Kirkuk contributed to this report.