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Top Iraq Rebels Elude Intensified U.S. Raids

Military Shifts to More Selective Targeting

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Feb. 14 -- Intensified military raids in Iraq over the past few months have significantly battered the ranks of mid-level insurgents but have scored few gains against the 30 or so most wanted rebels, according to senior U.S. military officers here.

As much as a third of this group is thought to move in and out of Iraq with some frequency, the officers said. Many have eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces by a combination of moving constantly, avoiding use of telephones and receiving protection from family or tribal connections.

U.S. soldiers carry out a raid in Mosul, Iraq. U.S. commanders say recent offensives have battered the ranks of mid-level insurgents, but none of the 30 leaders have been captured. (Jim Macmillan -- AP)

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Graphic: The Iraqi government has released the names of the most wanted insurgents operating in Iraq, including Abu Musab Zarqawi.

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"Are we having success rolling up some of the top-tier leaders? Not at this time," said Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas, the highest-ranking Army intelligence officer in Iraq. "But we're successfully working the second- and third-tier leaders to put pressure on the top tier."

After a lull in the days after the Jan. 30 elections, insurgents have resumed bombings, suicide attacks and assassinations, an increasing share of them directed against Iraqi civilians and security forces. There are now an average of about 60 attacks each day, close to the rate before the elections, according to U.S. military tallies, and most remain concentrated in Sunni Muslim-populated provinces of central and northwestern Iraq.

U.S. officers classify nearly half of the insurgency's leaders as "former regime members" -- people who were operatives of the ruling Baath Party, aides to deposed president Saddam Hussein or officers in his military and security services. Another eight are described as associates of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born insurgent leader. Most of the rest are characterized as foreign terrorists.

Intelligence analysts continue to view the insurgency as heavily fragmented and largely the work of small guerrilla cells that lack a central command. But the men on the military's wanted list are suspected of making important contributions in money or tactical coordination.

To better manage military and civilian intelligence efforts aimed at the insurgency's upper ranks, U.S. authorities established a special task force late last year. The Iraqi government issued arrest warrants for 29 figures on the most-wanted list last month to enable foreign governments to seize any who surface abroad.

More recently, Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps who took over last week as the senior U.S. operational commander in Iraq, has ordered a more focused approach to tracking high-priority insurgents. He calls it the "unblinking eye."

Predator drones, manned reconnaissance aircraft and agents on the ground are massed against a particular target to ensure round-the-clock surveillance. Previously, commanders typically had use of these for only limited periods of time.

"Rather than spreading those assets over an entire battlefield and getting only partial views, it's much more useful to mass them on a particular target," said Col. Rich Ellis, the senior military intelligence officer for the 18th Airborne Corps.

In a world of finite assets, this approach will require commanders to set more specific target priorities and gamble on pursuing them while leaving others for later. But military leaders here appear eager to try new methods, acknowledging that past efforts have fallen short.

In the U.S. view, the insurgency remains driven largely by Hussein loyalists bent on restoring themselves to power and preserving the dominance of the Sunni minority that existed in the Hussein years. These people are described as operating at times in loose associations with Zarqawi's network and with other underground Islamic groups that have been blamed for some of the more spectacular suicide bombings.

U.S. claims that insurgent operations below the top level have been badly disrupted stem from stepped-up pressure that started last summer with an assault in Najaf against the Mahdi Army militia of a radical Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr. That was followed by offensives against insurgents in Samarra, Fallujah, Mosul, northern Babil province and elsewhere.

The operations killed several thousand suspected insurgents and swelled the number of detainees to more than 8,000, according to U.S. figures. U.S. and Iraqi forces seized enormous amounts of weapons as well as documents, computer files and other records said to contain intelligence leads.

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