Iraq Insurgency Showing Signs of Momentum

Times Staff Writer

As this week’s coordinated violence demonstrates, Iraq’s insurgent movement is increasingly potent, riding a wave of anti-U.S. nationalism and religious extremism. Just days before an Iraqi government takes control of the country, experts and some commanders fear it may be too late to turn back the militant tide.

The much-anticipated wave of strikes preceding Wednesday’s scheduled hand-over could intensify under the new interim government as Sunni Muslim insurgents seek to undermine it, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

“I think we’re going to continue to see sensational attacks,” said Army Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 101st Airborne Division commander who will oversee the reshaping of Iraq’s fledgling security forces.

Long gone are the days when the insurgents were dismissed as a finite force ticketed for high-tech annihilation by superior U.S. firepower.

Wreaking havoc and derailing plans for reconstruction of this battered nation, the dominant guerrilla movement -- an unlikely Sunni alliance of hard-liners from the former regime, Islamic militants and anti-U.S. nationalists -- has taken over towns, blocked highways, bombed police stations, assassinated lawmakers and other “collaborators,” and abducted civilians.


Although Shiite Muslim fighters took U.S. forces by surprise in an April uprising, the Sunni insurgents represent a stronger, long-term threat, experts agree. The fighters, commanders say, are overwhelmingly Iraqis, with a small but important contingent of foreign fighters who specialize in carrying out suicide bombings and other spectacular attacks, possibly including this week’s coordinated strikes that killed more than 100 people.

“They are effective,” said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational commander of U.S. troops here.

The insurgent force has picked up legions of part-time nationalist recruits enraged by the lengthy occupation and the mounting toll on civilians. Whether the result of U.S. or insurgent fire, the casualties are blamed on Americans.

The anti-U.S. momentum is evident in both the nation’s urban centers and the palm-shrouded Sunni rural heartland, where resentment over military sweeps and the torturous pace of reconstruction is pervasive. Support for the insurgency ranges from quiet assent to participation in the fighting.

“We’re talking about people who are the equivalent of the Minutemen,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who served as an advisor for the U.S.-led occupation here. “They pick up their weapons and join the fight and then go back to their homes and farms. It makes it so fluid. And the media functions as the town crier, like the calls from the minaret.”

The nimble enemy has kept just far enough ahead of coalition forces to raise the question in Iraqi minds: Who will be here in the long run, the U.S. and its allies or the insurgents?

The characteristics of the insurgency in Iraq are familiar from earlier campaigns in Vietnam and elsewhere, Hoffman wrote in a recent paper: “A population will give its allegiance to the side that will best protect it.”

Also like past insurgency campaigns, this one combines classic guerrilla tactics -- ambushes and other attacks on occupying troops -- with ruthless terror, including the massacres of religious worshipers and restaurant patrons and the beheading of hostages.

The insurgents’ decentralized command structure, Hoffman said in an interview, echoes the atomized nature of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Thus, the arrest of deposed President Saddam Hussein in December was not nearly the intelligence windfall that U.S. authorities had predicted. Nor did his capture dry up funding for the insurgents.

Although U.S. officials have labeled Jordanian fugitive Abu Musab Zarqawi a mastermind in the wave of attacks that has shaken the country since last year, commanders say the insurgents’ coordination is unclear.

“We can’t find ... a particular command and control structure that leads to one or two or three particular nodes,” Metz said. “But I’m confident there are some leaders who have the wealth to continue ... paying people to do business.”

U.S. authorities have jailed dozens of cell chiefs but watched in frustration as the groups have regenerated and fought anew. “These kinds of networks, you chop off one part and the other part keeps on moving,” Petraeus said.

The insurgents have other strengths: plentiful weapons (in many cases, looted from unguarded armories at the end of the invasion last year); easy mobility, in the form of a relatively modern highway system; and communications, in the form of cellphones and access to regional television channels such as Al Jazeera.

Defeating a force this entrenched and energized is difficult, commanders say.

“There are some insurgent leaders who wanted to talk to us,” said Army Col. Dana Pittard of the 1st Infantry Division in Baqubah, an agricultural city northeast of Baghdad that was the site of fierce fighting Thursday. “But there are others who are hard-core and just don’t get it.”

Trying to defeat such a foe militarily can drag opposing forces into a withering cycle of violence, especially in a culture where families feel obliged to avenge the death of loved ones.

“The nature of this culture is you can’t win a war of attrition with them,” said Col. Robert B. Abrams of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, “because it’s a circle of violence -- there will always be someone in the family who will pick up arms. Unless you want to kill too many people. Which of course we never want to do.”

The insurgents have time on their side: U.S. forces are already under pressure to leave. And the Sunni fighters are armed with another major advantage: They have no need to win, only to sow instability. Their goal is to stand in the way of the caretaker government as it navigates a difficult path toward elections scheduled for January. Whether the nation will be sufficiently secure for free elections in six months is in doubt.

The murky guerrilla movement first emerged in the spring of 2003 with sporadic attacks on troops after the ouster of Hussein’s regime. U.S. forces were just consolidating their control of Iraq and basking in their relatively easy march to Baghdad.

At the time, U.S. officials -- notably L. Paul Bremer III, the chief American administrator here -- dismissed the embryonic opposition as “dead-enders” who owed their allegiance to Hussein. Their initial attacks were amateurish, often involving kamikaze assaults on U.S. armored vehicles or crude roadside bombs jerry-built from stray munitions, wires and makeshift triggers.

Amid the triumphant declarations, it is now widely agreed, the U.S. leadership was disastrously slow to anticipate that this primitive enemy could grow into a formidable foe.

What Bremer and other officials failed to appreciate fully was postwar Iraq’s combustible character: a nation brimming with arms, munitions and disenfranchised young men with military training, all primed to be stoked by ruthless and well-funded Baath Party operatives embittered in defeat.

“It’s not clear to me that we ever developed a coherent campaign plan for conducting a counterinsurgency campaign,” said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “We were unprepared for it [and] late to recognize it.”

Perceived U.S. heavy-handedness in Sunni enclaves such as Fallouja, west of the capital, provided fuel for the movement, as did the mass roundups and sweeps of thousands of young Sunni men suspected of anti-coalition activity. The U.S. decisions to disband Iraq’s armed forces and bar many former Baathists from government jobs fed the growing resentment -- and recruitment.

As disillusionment with the occupation grew, the armed resistance spread throughout the Sunni heartland, from greater Baghdad to the vast expanses to the west and north. Many young men flocked to the cause, whether out of principle or to earn some cash.

Hussein loyalists, including members of his secret police services, provided funds and logistics for the movement, officials say. Though themselves largely secular, they played on religious feelings and fears that Sunnis -- long the dominant group in Iraq -- faced marginalization in a U.S.-backed regime favoring the Shiite majority.

“They don’t want this new government to come into power because they’re fearful that the Sunni will be outvoted by the majority Shia,” said Abrams of the 1st Cavalry Division. “They’ll go from being the haves under Saddam to being the have-nots. They’ve got a lot to lose.”

Sunni imams spurred the insurgency, and Arab jihadists specializing in suicide attacks beat a path through the nation’s porous borders.

One U.S. colonel formerly charged with guarding the western borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan said a virtual “jihad Super Bowl” took place last spring and summer as foreign militants poured in.

The campaign here has again emphasized that counterinsurgency is not the United States’ strong suit. Its military units today are trained for swift, high-tech wars against conventional armies -- the war they fought with remarkable success on their way to Baghdad in 2003.

In the last year, U.S. commanders trained incoming units in counterinsurgency tactics. They shifted intelligence analysts from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the search for anti-American guerrillas. They bolted armor to Humvees and figured out ways to detect roadside bombs before they detonated. And still they’re struggling to catch up to the insurgents, although commanders defend the progress made.

“We made real headway,” said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., who commanded the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the region known as the Sunni Triangle for seven months until the Marines took over in April.

The key question now, Swannack and others agree, is not whether U.S. troops can defeat the insurgents in individual battles but whether the provisional Iraqi government and its fledgling security forces can stop the bombings and assassinations that make Iraqis feel unsafe.

All say the new Iraqi forces are ill-equipped to control the insurgents, and in some cases disinclined to take on their neighbors and tribal brethren. U.S. officials hope to change that by election time. Some hope that the Iraqi security officers, once properly trained and outfitted, will be able to confront the foe more effectively because of their cultural familiarity.

“There is something of a force-multiplier effect when the Iraqis take the field because each Iraqi soldier should be more capable than an American soldier in his body language and cultural knowledge,” said Col. Christopher Langton of the Defense Analysis Department of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

On the political front, the new Iraqi government appears to be looking for ways to co-opt the Sunni hard-liners with talk of amnesty and reconciliation, but to date there are few takers. The Fallouja solution -- in which Marines retreated from a bloody siege, essentially turning the town back over to Baathist elements and their insurgent allies -- has reduced clashes, but has also created a guerrilla redoubt. The last week saw three U.S. bombing strikes in Fallouja that commanders say targeted Zarqawi’s followers.

Such prospective accords with the Sunni bloc risk alienating Shiites and the ethnic Kurds, the nation’s other major population group.

Much attention has focused on the insurgents’ grip on Fallouja, but the recent attacks in Baqubah underscore the guerrillas’ muscularity and range throughout the Sunni region.

“Since the fall of the regime, not a single penny was allocated to this town,” said Awf Abdul Rida Ahmad, the mayor of Buhriz, an agricultural suburb and insurgent stronghold of 40,000 southeast of Baqubah.

U.S. and insurgent forces fought a two-day battle this month that left more than a dozen insurgents and a U.S. soldier dead, the Army says.

As in Fallouja, U.S. forces withdrew after days of gun battles. An uneasy peace prevails today. Many celebrate the mujahedin, and graffiti praises Hussein and denounces the Americans and those who collaborate.

“The people here are very peaceful, and all they want is stability and peace of mind,” said the mayor, who denied the presence of insurgents in Buhriz and said calm would prevail if the Americans just stayed away. “This is not a town of criminals or thugs.”

Times staff writers John Daniszewski in London, Mark Mazzetti and Doyle McManus in Washington and special correspondent Suhail Ahmed in Buhriz contributed to this report.