World & Nation

Saboteurs in Iraq target U.S. credibility

Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD -- The truck bomb that shattered the U.N.'s compound in Baghdad and killed its chief official leaves little doubt that a campaign of violence is overwhelming the ability of U.S.-led occupation forces to reconstruct Iraq.

Since a car bombing at the Jordanian Embassy on Aug. 7, security in Iraq has deteriorated markedly on many fronts. There have been multiple acts of sabotage against key installations such as pipelines and a water main. Attacks on U.S. soldiers have continued.

It seems clear that those opposed to the U.S.-led occupation want to force the Americans into an ugly battle to provide security, and in the process halt both reconstruction and efforts to install a government friendly to the West.

There was no consensus Tuesday on who attacked the United Nations compound. Suspicion for the recent attacks has fallen on either remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime or on the al-Qaida terrorist network and its affiliates.

U.S. and other Western officials say they do not know if these attacks have been carried out by one group or many, whether the attacks are coordinated or merely concurrent. However, the answer to those questions might matter less than the attacks’ cumulative impact.

Enemies of the occupation force have chosen a wide range of targets: U.S. troops, economic infrastructure and anyone who cooperates in the rebuilding effort -- electrical company workers, newly appointed mayors, policemen and now the U.N.

The U.S. military has been forced to conduct broad sweeps of Iraq to round up suspects, alienating many Iraqis, and still has not been able to stop the violence. Iraqis are losing confidence that the United States can deliver on its promise to improve daily life. Under such conditions, the U.S. cannot stabilize the country -- and will have more difficulty persuading others to stay the course.

Paul Rogers, a terrorism expert at the department of peace studies at Bradford University in Britain, said he believed that Tuesday’s bombers were former Baathist members of Hussein’s regime and that they seemed “intent on preventing any kind of reconstruction.”

The strategy seemed to be “economic sabotage -- making it as difficult as possible to rebuild Iraq,” he said.

The goal was to discredit the Americans as a force capable of protecting international organizations in Iraq, thus undermining the U.S. and creating doubts about whether outsiders would be safe, said Mustafa Alani, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies.

“It’s a very important attack because the U.N. cannot protect itself, nor can the Iraqi police protect them. At the end of the day, it is an American responsibility to protect organizations like that. So, from their [the attackers’] point of view, it’s a major achievement to bomb the U.N. and show that the Americans cannot maintain security,” he said.

Typical of guerrilla warfare or a terrorism campaign, it is impossible to predict where the next bombing might occur. Trying to guard against all attacks is impossible. The 146,000 U.S. troops in a country the size of California are insufficient even to guard key infrastructure such as Iraq’s vital oil facilities.

Although the U.S. has sought to downplay the possibility of long-term resistance, top U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III recently acknowledged the seriousness of the escalation. Even before Tuesday’s attack, he said the terrorism threat and the amount of sabotage worried him.

“We could and did anticipate we would have criminality, we knew we would have some resistance from the old regime, we knew we would have some terrorism -- but I’m a little uncomfortable with the amount of terrorism we have seen and the number of terrorists we are seeing coming in,” he said in an interview last week.

“The sabotage part is certainly taking more time than I anticipated, I think largely because I had not understood -- I would say we had not understood -- how fragile the economic infrastructure of this country was,” Bremer said.

Ten days ago, just after the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, Walter Slocombe, the senior coalition advisor to the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times that “we have to be prepared for a spectacular attack.”

He said at the time that he had no specific information that one was about to occur but that it appeared to be a possibility after the embassy bombing.

Bremer and top officials have reacted in recent weeks to the increasing instability. But the solutions -- doubling the police force and training a new army -- are expensive and will take time.

Bremer has said repeatedly that the only short-term defense against terrorist attacks is good intelligence. He will not say how many Western intelligence operatives are on the ground in Baghdad, but there has been a massive influx. However, they have limited local contacts and are essentially starting from scratch. That slows even the “short-term” solution.

The situation could force the U.S. to reconsider the size of its military deployment in Iraq.

The Pentagon has resisted the idea of boosting the force from the beginning, but many policy experts have said it is essential. Besides patrolling the country, U.S. troops are also rebuilding damaged infrastructure and guarding U.S. civilian contractors and international aid workers.

“When major combat ended, the coalition did not send an overwhelming force into Iraq to win the peace,” said Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, an expert in post-conflict policy.

“If you compare the density of troops in Iraq to Kosovo or Bosnia, there is no comparison per capita, or by territory -- so from the beginning, we never provided the manpower to overwhelm opponents and external threats.”

In assessing the recent attacks, U.S. officials and terrorism experts cite several potential enemies of the occupation. Remnants of Hussein’s regime are thought to be responsible for most of the grenade, mortar and bomb attacks on U.S. soldiers, many of which have resulted in one or two casualties.

The attack on the Jordanian Embassy was more sophisticated. A car bomb was used, killing at least 17 people and wounding about 50 others. Officials suspect either highly trained former regime members such as Mukhabarat secret police or military intelligence agents, or al-Qaida operatives or their surrogates.

Iraq’s long border, which touches several countries, is virtually impossible to guard, and there are widespread reports in the intelligence community that hundreds of people affiliated with the extremist group Ansar al Islam have entered Iraq in the last two months. Fifty alleged Ansar members were arrested in the last week in northern Iraq. Some members are believed to have al-Qaida training.

Even if such new arrivals were not responsible for bombing the U.N. compound, their presence would complicate the future.

“The terrorist threat and the border are related,” Bremer said. “The borders are not entirely open, but they are certainly a lot less controlled than they need to be.”

Bremer has ordered the Iraqi border police, once a force of 8,700, back to work. So far, about 1,100 have returned to work on the borders. Thousands of others have returned, but are working as customs officers.

“Now, you can ask how effective they are, and the answer is probably not as effective as we want them to be,” Bremer said. “It is an area where we are going to have to do better.”

Bremer, a man of tremendous energy and optimism, never concedes that the attacks are slowing his efforts to get the economy going, create jobs and restore the infrastructure, but outside experts agree that it is impossible to move ahead on such complex issues when day-to-day security is so precarious.

“Security is linked to everything they are trying to do. And when it’s a preoccupation, as it is now, it’s very hard to move onto other things,” said Sheba Crocker, a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently visited Iraq. She is a co-author of a report on Iraq reconstruction commissioned by the Defense Department.

“Pretty much everywhere we went felt edgy -- you’re having to do reconstruction in what is still essentially a war zone,” Crocker said.

Williams reported from Baghdad and Rubin from Vienna.

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