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Face of Iraqi Insurgency Altering, Rumsfeld Says

Times Staff Writer

Assaults on civilians represent a continuing shift toward easy targets by Iraqi rebels whose numbers have apparently been boosted by foreign fighters, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said Monday.

“There’s no question that people are coming across the border,” Rumsfeld told reporters during his fourth visit to the country since a U.S.-led coalition ousted President Saddam Hussein last spring. “And not surprisingly, our forces tend to be fairly hard targets and Iraqi targets thus far tend to be somewhat less hard, and so you see an increasing number of Iraqis being killed by these terrorists.”

Since January, three of the six regional military divisions in Iraq have changed personnel as part of a massive replacement of 105,000 American soldiers and roughly 20,000 other coalition troops. Although commanders had feared a jump in the number of attacks on the supply and troop transport convoys, the number of incidents has been negligible, military officials said.

“They realized it was not in their interest to attack those convoys,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for coalition forces.

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The daily number of attacks has declined -- from an average of about 50 in November to 18 on Monday -- yet what were once ambushes that killed one or two soldiers with small-arms fire and roadside bombs last year have grown into more lethal attacks, Kimmitt said. A coordinated assault on a police station in Fallouja killed 25 on Feb. 14 and a Kirkuk bombing Monday killed at least nine.

Military commanders said the number of foreign insurgents remains small, but appears to be growing. Of the 25 insurgents identified as foreign Arabs who were captured in Baghdad in the last six months, perhaps 15 were caught in the last two, said Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for security in the capital.

“We’re ubiquitous in Baghdad and still we’re not seeing anything approaching large numbers of foreign fighters,” Dempsey said in an interview. “But proportionally, their activity appears to be rising.”

Intelligence officials for the 1st Infantry said religious extremists and those loyal to Hussein’s government are increasingly supplemented by members of terrorist organizations, including Ansar al Islam and the network of suspected Al Qaeda associate Abu Musab Zarqawi. Ansar has been blamed for attacks in northern Iraq’s Kurdish territory.

The coalition’s strategy in combating the attacks has been to turn over more control to Iraqi security forces, who Rumsfeld said can better discern foreign insurgents and offer what Bush administration officials see as a powerful symbol of Iraqis protecting Iraqis.

In addition to the coalition troops, there are more than 200,000 Iraqis in the fledgling army, Civil Defense Corps, police, border patrol and facilities protection service. In the capital, for example, Dempsey is dispatching his troops to the perimeter of the city, to be replaced in the city center by Iraqi police and civil defense troops.

“It’s very important that Iraqis assume responsibility for their own security,” Rumsfeld told reporters after a series of meetings with Coalition Provisional Authority and senior military officials. “Our task is to help train them, help equip them, help mentor them.”

Iraqi police “are increasingly recognizing that the terrorists are killing Iraqis, and they don’t have a high regard for that,” Rumsfeld said.

To highlight the point, Rumsfeld visited an enthusiastic group of police recruits at a training center in Baghdad, where he was met with fist-pumping, cheers and a kiss from a female recruit.

“Long live the new Iraq,” Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Ibrahim chanted to recruits, who called back, “Victorious, oh Baghdad.” Earlier in the day Rumsfeld told trainees in Iraq’s paramilitary civil defense force, “The success of Iraq is in your hands.”

Yet the transition from American to Iraqi forces is likely to take months, with significant numbers of U.S. troops expected to linger indefinitely, U.S. officials said. Coalition officials will have to reach an agreement that outlines what role the U.S. military will play under an Iraqi government.

“On June 30, the occupation will end when we pass sovereignty from this office back to an Iraqi government, whatever it turns out to be,” Bremer said in an interview with a handful of reporters in his Baghdad office at Hussein’s former Republican Palace.

“At that moment the occupation ends and we have a sovereign Iraqi government in place,” he said. “It is clear that no matter how well we do in building up the Iraqi security forces -- and as you heard this morning there are more than 200,000 already at work -- they will not be able to deal with the security threat that will still exist after June 30. So the coalition we have now will transform itself from being an occupation to being a partnership. We will be invited guests by the Iraqi government to help them ensure their security.”


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