Iraqi Insurgency Proves Tough to Crack

Times Staff Writer

Four days before the landmark Iraqi national election, U.S. officials and their allies are bracing for fresh insurgent attacks with far less of the optimism that marked previous milestones.

The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 was greeted as a likely death blow for the guerrillas, then regarded as an incipient array of ill-organized holdovers from the ousted dictator’s Baath Party. When sovereignty was returned to Iraq six months later, the insurgents were seen as a more substantial threat, but it was widely anticipated that their strength would wither under an Iraqi government.

Today, after more than 18 months of often-fierce confrontations, tens of thousands of hard-core fighters are said to be operating in and around Baghdad and the Sunni Muslim heartland of central Iraq. The insurgents have plenty of firepower and mobility, employ strategic military thinking and operate openly in some areas, defying Iraqi government control.

On Tuesday, insurgents assassinated an Iraqi judge, killed at least five members of Iraqi security forces and made public a videotape of an American hostage begging for his life at gunpoint.


Recently the insurgents have carried out about 50 attacks daily, including a spate of killings and the bombing of a water main that disrupted the supply for hundreds of thousands of Baghdad residents. After a round of killings in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province in the Sunni heartland, word came Tuesday that the 1,000-member police force had abandoned its posts, the latest flop of the U.S.-sponsored security services.

Regardless of the turnout for Sunday’s election, U.S. officials are no longer predicting the swift vanquishing of the insurgents, who have stymied the world’s most potent military machine with bombings, assassinations, abductions and infrastructure attacks.

“I think during election day they’re going to start to attack early, create as big of a media event as they can, to try and intimidate people,” a senior U.S. commander said Tuesday.

Other assessments are even more bleak.

“I think it is unlikely that these elections will do much to bring violence down; let’s be honest about it,” said one Western official here, who, like several others interviewed, declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “I think the elections are a huge step for the credibility of the government, the legitimacy of the government, and will contribute to a solution over the medium and long term. But there’s not going to be a short-term answer in March or April.... Ending the violence is going to take a long time.”

The shift in attitude reflects a view that the insurgents have successfully adapted to changed circumstances.

The water main bombing, for example, appeared to be part of a well-planned campaign of sabotage that has left much of the nation’s infrastructure in tatters. Rebels have mounted hundreds of attacks on oil, gas and electricity lines, and most major highways are hijack-prone shooting galleries. The international airport is now little used; two commercial flights returned to Jordan this week because of intense battles on the ground near the airfield.

Overall, attacks have dropped from a peak of more than 100 per day in November. But, the senior military official noted that insurgents had repeatedly demonstrated “the ability to create spikes in the violence beyond their last spike.”

Thus, last April’s heavy fighting was eclipsed in intensity in August and again in November, when Marines invaded the former rebel stronghold of Fallouja, and the northern city of Mosul became a battlefield.

The Iraq conflict has thrust the U.S. military into a kind of Catch-22: Its forces were deployed to maintain stability, but their very presence has helped unite an unlikely alliance of religious militants and former regime loyalists. Opposition to what is viewed as an illegal U.S. occupation animates both blocs.

“What they share in common is us,” said Col. Chris Gibson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 325 Airborne Infantry Regiment in Mosul.

U.S. officials have said for months that they plan to defeat the insurgents by building up Iraqi security forces and providing a political alternative for Sunni Arabs, whose bitterness with the new Iraq has nourished the rebellion. But neither prescription is a sure thing.

The long-term effectiveness of Iraqi police and military -- dogged by low morale, rebel infiltration, high desertion rates and a lack of training and equipment -- remains a central question.

Two months before the Ramadi police walkout Tuesday, three-quarters of the 4,000-man police force in Mosul left the job in the face of a rebel offensive.

Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, are widely expected to stay away from the polls. The hope now is that the Sunni Arab population from which the insurgency draws its recruits can be brought into the political process after elections, through appointments or other methods.

“If you are unemployed and your house is raided every night, they are forcing you to join the resistance,” Mohammed Saleh Obeidi, a lawyer and a Sunni, told reporters after a recent “peace meeting” in the tense town of Baqubah. No Sunnis present at the session said they planned to vote.

The Bush administration stresses that insurgent attacks are largely confined to greater Baghdad and several mostly Sunni Arab provinces.

Yet the troubled region is home to more than 40% of the nation’s population and includes both the nation’s capital and the strategic metropolis of Mosul.

Moreover, Sunni Arab insurgents have proved their ability to strike throughout the country. Suicide bombers have detonated their payloads from the Kurdish north to the Shiite Muslim shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, to Basra and the Persian Gulf area in the far south.

Although U.S. officials have succeeded in opening up former no-go zones in the largely Sunni cities of Samarra and Fallouja, the price has been great. Both cities suffered heavy damage, and neither is close to normal.

Fallouja these days is hardly more than a devastated ghost town, bodies of dead insurgents entombed in its ruins. Samarra remains hostile and dangerous, as do other Sunni-dominated cities and neighborhoods throughout the country. And, absent effective Iraqi security forces, the thinly stretched U.S. military must keep the guerrillas from filtering back in.

“They’ve got their spotters,” said 1st Sgt. Jose Andrade of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which took part in the attack on Fallouja in November. “They know our moves as well as we do.”

The insurgents’ strategy combines fierce intimidation with appeals to Islam, nationalism and the broad disillusionment of the Sunni minority, which ran the country for decades until Hussein was toppled in April 2003. They execute accused collaborators and informants of the U.S.-backed government, sometimes by ritual beheading. In some cases, officials say, entire families of informers have been killed as examples for others.

The vast majority of the fighters apparently are Iraqis. The relatively small contingent of foreign fighters found during the U.S.-led attack on Fallouja showed that non-Iraqis made up no more than 10% of the insurgent force, U.S. commanders said, and probably much less. The Iraqi rebels are a heterogeneous force: former military and intelligence men in Hussein’s Baathist regime, anti-U.S. nationalists, home-grown Islamic militants, criminals for hire and others. For many, it is a part-time occupation. A well-known cell leader in Samarra was a tailor.

Although it’s largely a home-grown insurgency, foreign jihadis play a crucial role as suicide volunteers and an ideological vanguard. A Saudi car-bomber was picked up recently after surviving a truck-bomb attack in a Baghdad neighborhood.

He told authorities he worked for the network of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who leads an Al Qaeda-linked organization here.

So-called mujahedin have fought to transform Iraq into ground zero of the global jihad.

Former Iraqi security men provide the insurgency with a paramilitary infrastructure and aggressive intelligence networks that survived the fall of Hussein. Although Hussein’s regime was notably secular, experts have detected a drift toward religious fervor even among the ex-Baathists fighting in Iraq.

“All of this proves the Islamization of the Iraqi resistance,” wrote Georges Malbrunot, a correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro who was released just before Christmas after spending four months as a hostage in Iraq.

By most accounts, the insurgency is very decentralized.

“Everybody wants to find one master string-puller, but it’s not as rigid a command structure as that,” said Capt. Sean Kuehl, assistant intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment based in Ramadi.

The insurgents have ready access to arms in a nation where the stockpiles of what was once the Middle East’s largest army were heavily looted following Hussein’s ouster. And experts say funding is plentiful.

“A lot of it is ... money that was stashed by Saddam and his henchman,” said a knowledgeable coalition official. “A lot of it is flowing in through Syria and other countries.... It’s a very difficult and diffuse network to try and track down.”

Staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris, Louise Roug traveling with the 82nd Airborne Division in Mosul, and Tony Perry traveling with the 1st Marine Division in Ramadi contributed to this report.