Copley News Service June 20, 2003
Urban guerrilla warfare belatedly emerges in Iraq
By Marcus Stern
A worried America turns on the evening news each night to hear that more American troops have died. The troops themselves complain of fatigue fighting in a hot, hostile land where their role and objectives are unclear. And the war's justification is increasingly questioned at home.
In recent days, some critics have begun suggesting haunting parallels between the ongoing war in Iraq and the early stages of the Vietnam war.
They point to the rising number of soldiers dying in guerrilla-style attacks and the expanding estimate of the war's cost and duration. On Capitol Hill this week, two senior Pentagon officials declined to dispute lawmakers' estimates that the conflict could continue for more than a decade at a cost of $3 billion a month.
Hawks in Congress and the administration downplay the hit-and-run attacks, the restiveness of the Iraqi people and the continuing problems restoring Iraq's drinking water, electricity and economy.
Negative talk, they say, plays into the hands of pro-Saddam Hussein forces by undermining political support here for the war effort in Iraq.
"The most important message for American politicians to send is that we are not going to abandon Iraq. We will persevere," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-California. "Any messages that are counter to that are disabling and to some degree they devalue the efforts of our soldiers who sacrificed so much to win this war."
But guerrilla-style attacks are occurring and many of the soldiers are chafing at their role as peacekeepers as their stay in Iraq is extended into the summer months and temperatures inside their armored vehicles reach 130 degrees.
"If the United States is unable to bring this situation under control and eliminate this small threat, you could see this explode into something much greater," said Patrick Garrett, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, an online defense consultancy.
War planners now face the challenge of trying to aggressively go after an elusive enemy without triggering a backlash among ordinary Iraqis that would undermine any hopes of winning the battle for their hearts and minds.
The emergence of guerrilla tactics also puts even greater pressure on U.S. intelligence agencies, which continue to face questions dating to the pre-war period over assessments of Iraq's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
In trying to locate their attackers, soldiers face a daunting language barrier and lack of cultural awareness that only can be overcome with good intelligence.
Little is known about the attackers. Intelligence officials believe they are remnants of Hussein's military and security apparatus and "jihadists" - or holy warriors - who have slipped into Iraq through Iran and Syria to kill U.S. troops.
Their level of organization remains a matter of debate.
Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, speaking from Iraq, said he didn't want to dignify the attacks by saying they were of a "guerrilla nature." He called them "militarily insignificant."
Paul M. Bremer III, director of the Coalition Provision Authority in Iraq said, "We do not at the moment see evidence of central command and control of these groups. I certainly wouldn't exclude it, but we don't have the evidence yet."
War planners had expected to face urban guerrilla warfare on the road to victory, but not on the road to peace.
When the troops rolled into Baghdad in April they were in tanks and armored personnel carriers that were virtually impervious to the rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles Iraqi soldiers were shooting at them.
But as the troops have shifted to a peacekeeping mission, they spend much of their time either in thin-skinned Humvees or on foot, leaving them vulnerable to small arms and grenade attacks, or land mines.
U.S. troops are guarding 500 sites and conduct 2,300 patrols a day, according to Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Southern and northern Iraq are relatively quiet. The attacks are coming in an area of central Iraq known as the Sunni Triangle. It extends north about 100 miles from Baghdad to Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, and 40 miles west to the traditional Baath Party stronghold of Fallujah.
Since President Bush declared on May 1 that major fighting had ceased in Iraq more than 50 U.S. troops have died, more than a dozen as a result of hostility.
This past week, U.S. forces responded to the daily attacks with two conventional strikes, involving armor, artillery and attack planes.
Operation Peninsula Strike along the Tigris River north of Baghdad involved 4,000 troops. Desert Scorpion, west of Baghdad, comprised 69 raids.
In an effort to employ a carrot-and-stick approach, the troops followed their raids with deliveries of badly needed food and medical supplies.
While questions are being raised about the intelligence leading up to the war, some military analysts have praised U.S. intelligence so far, including the arrest last week of Abid Hamid Mahmud, the ace of diamonds in the Pentagon's deck of playing cards identifying Iraq's 55 most wanted.
They're using drones, satellites and other surveillance equipment.
"Much of our intelligence is being given to us by Iraqis," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of ground forces in Iraq.
Copley News Service correspondent Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2003, Copley News Service