U.S. Officers In Iraq Put Priority on Extremists

Iraqi police survey the scene after suicide bombers attacked a U.S. security convoy in central Baghdad on Saturday.
Iraqi police survey the scene after suicide bombers attacked a U.S. security convoy in central Baghdad on Saturday. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005

BAGHDAD, May 8 -- Senior U.S. commanders say their view of the Iraqi insurgency has begun to shift, with higher priority being given to combating foreign fighters and Iraqi jihadists.

This shift comes in response to the recent upsurge in suicide attacks and other developments that indicate a more prominent role in the insurgency by these radical groups, the commanders say.

Previously, U.S. authorities have depicted the insurgency as being dominated largely by what the Pentagon has dubbed "former regime elements" -- a combination of onetime Baath Party loyalists and Iraqi military and security service officers intent on restoring Sunni rule. But since the Jan. 30 elections, this segment of the insurgency has appeared to pull back from the fight, at least for a while, reassessing strategies and exploring a possible political deal with the new government, senior U.S. officers here say.

Acting on the assumption that foreign fighters and Iraqi extremists may now pose the greater and more immediate threat to security in Iraq, U.S. commanders have given orders in recent days to reposition some U.S. ground forces and intelligence assets in northwestern Iraq to further fortify the border with Syria and block suspected infiltration routes. They are also stepping up efforts to go after leading bomb-makers and key organizers of the suicide attacks.

In interviews, several commanders and intelligence officers cautioned that their shift was still tentative and based more on fragmentary information and intuition than on solid, specific evidence. They said assessments differed among U.S. intelligence specialists.

But supporting the impression that a harder-core insurgent element has become more important, the officers say, is the fact that suicide missions have become more frequent and more ruthless -- many have been positioned and timed to kill civilians as well as Iraqi security forces. U.S. and Iraqi authorities say suicide drivers are invariably foreign fighters. Officers here said they knew of no documented case in which a suicide attacker turned out to have been an Iraqi.

A recent U.S. intelligence estimate also shows an increase last month in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, according to several officers familiar with it.

"There seems to be an increasing foreign element to the insurgency," said Army Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

With Baathist-led Sunni groups appearing to sit on the sidelines for now, some senior officers say the insurgency seems to have shrunk as its tactics have become more vicious.

"The base of the insurgency is getting very narrow, but it is still a fairly competent terrorist base," one commanding officer said on condition of anonymity. More than 300 people have been killed since the formation of Iraq's new government 10 days ago.

The generals allow for the possibility that the apparent change in the nature of the insurgency may be only temporary. They noted, for instance, that a failure to draw the Sunnis into the new political process could again drive the Baathists into more violent opposition.

"They may have just taken a pause," said Army Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III, the top military intelligence officer in Iraq. "I'm not sure they've quit the insurgency. They can certainly come back."

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