By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Top Pentagon officials yesterday acknowledged a recent jump in insurgent violence in Iraq but described the escalation as nowhere near the peak levels of the past year and disputed suggestions that it represents a lack of progress.
At a news conference, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the level of attacks is about the same as it was a year ago, with the insurgency retaining the ability to surge. But he and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cited other developments -- including a greater willingness by Iraqis to provide intelligence on insurgents and growth in Iraqi security forces and political institutions -- as evidence of improvement.
The latest increase in bombings, shootings, and rocket and mortar attacks has ended a period of greater calm that followed the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections. From a high of nearly 150 attacks a day immediately before the vote, the average had fallen to about 40, and the number of U.S. casualties had dropped sharply as well.
But over the past month, the daily total has edged up to about 50 or 60 attacks, about half of which are resulting in significant damage, injuries or deaths, according to Pentagon figures.
Of particular concern for U.S. authorities has been a rise in the number of suicide car-bomb attacks, some of which are now being used in tandem. Myers singled out this trend yesterday.
In the past, U.S. military authorities have attributed the suicide attacks not to Iraqi Sunni militants who dominate the insurgency but to foreign Islamic extremists who have joined the fight in Iraq. But U.S. analysts are still trying to identify the forces behind the rise in the suicide missions and have not ruled out the possibility that it reflects a hardening of Sunni opposition as a political impasse persists over the formation of a new Iraqi government.
Rumsfeld and Myers characterized the recent increase in attacks as relatively small and said it is not identifiable as a clear trend.
"It's up slightly in the last week," Rumsfeld said. "But what you have is a relatively small number of people who have weapons and who have money and who are determined to try to prevent democracy from going forward."
Still, their concern about the worsening security situation was evident in statements from both officials underscoring the need for a break in the political logjam in Iraq.
"The political process must go forward," Myers said. "We must have a cabinet appointed here very quickly."
Asked whether the rise in attacks shows the United States is winning or losing the conflict, Rumsfeld tried to shift the focus of the question, saying U.S. and coalition forces will not by themselves defeat the insurgency.
"The people that are going to defeat that insurgency are going to be the Iraqis," he said.
Myers responded more emphatically.
"I think we're definitely winning," he said. "I think we've been winning for some time."
As evidence that U.S. forces may be closing in on at least one major terrorist figure in Iraq, defense officials said Special Operations forces had nearly captured Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi in a raid two months ago that netted two of his associates.
According to the U.S. account, first reported Monday night by ABC News, U.S. forces had been in place to seize Zarqawi on Feb. 20 after receiving information that he would be attending a meeting in Ramadi. But shortly before the meeting, a car was pulled over at a checkpoint. A pickup truck trailing the car then turned and headed in the opposite direction.
U.S. authorities suspect Zarqawi was in the truck. But when U.S. forces pulled the vehicle over several miles later, he was not inside. Instead, they found a computer with photos of Zarqawi and other information related to him, as well as more than $100,000 in Euros.
Neither Rumsfeld nor Myers would discuss the incident. But Rumsfeld said the capture of members of Zarqawi's network has put the terrorist leader under greater pressure.
"I think he is on the run," the Pentagon leader said. "I think life for a terrorist, extremist, in that country is hard."