Copley News Service June 23, 2003
U.S. troops face evolving, growing challenge in Iraq
Enemy is elusive; death toll is rising
By Marcus Stern
WASHINGTON - A worried America turns on the evening news each night to hear that more U.S. troops have died. The troops complain of fatigue while serving a difficult role in a hot, hostile land where their presence is increasingly being questioned at home.
In recent days, some critics have begun suggesting parallels between the ongoing conflict in Iraq and some aspects of the Vietnam War.
They point to the rising number of soldiers dying in guerrilla-style attacks and the estimates of the war's cost and duration. On Capitol Hill last 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.
Bush administration supporters downplay the attacks, the restiveness of some Iraqi people and the continuing problems restoring Iraq's stability 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-El Cajon. "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 continue and many of the soldiers are chafing at their role as peacekeepers as their stay in Iraq is extended into the summer and temperatures inside their armored vehicles soar as high as 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 face the challenge of trying to aggressively pursue an elusive enemy without triggering a backlash among ordinary Iraqis.
The emergence of guerrilla tactics 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 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."
L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator 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 using against 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 about 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 May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, at least 55 U.S. troops have died. More than a dozen of those deaths have been the result of hostilities.
U.S. forces have responded to those attacks with 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, involved 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 information that led to the arrest last week of Abid Hamid Mahmud, a top lieutenant to Hussein and the ace of diamonds in the Pentagon's deck of playing cards identifying Iraq's 55 most wanted.
"Much of our intelligence is being given to us by Iraqis," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of ground forces in Iraq.
Copyright © 2003, Union-Tribune Publishing Co.