By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 19, 2005
BAGHDAD -- Using enemy body counts as a benchmark, the U.S. military claimed gains against Abu Musab Zarqawi's foreign-led fighters last week even as they mounted their deadliest attacks on Iraq's capital.
But by many standards, including increasingly high death tolls in insurgent strikes, Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, could claim to be the side that's gaining after 2 1/2 years of war. August was the third-deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops.
Zarqawi's guerrillas this spring and summer showed themselves to be capable of mounting waves of suicide bombings and car bombings that could kill scores at a time and paralyze the Iraqi capital. Insurgents have also launched dozens of attacks every day in other parts of Iraq and laid open claim this summer to cities and towns in the critical far west, despite hit-and-run offensives by U.S. forces.
Last week, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, declared "great successes" against insurgents. But Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, where Lynch briefed reporters, was under stepped-up security screening and U.S. guard for fear of suicide bombings. Insurgents for three days running last week managed to lob mortar rounds into the Green Zone, the heart of the U.S. and Iraqi administration.
Lynch spoke at the close of a two-day onslaught of bombings and shootings that killed nearly 190 people, the bloodiest days in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Over 17 days this month, guerrillas across Iraq killed at least 116 Iraqi forces and 346 Iraqi civilians in drive-by shootings, bombings and other violence, according to Iraqi officials.
And in the west, Zarqawi's foreign and Iraqi fighters this month raised the black banners of al Qaeda in Iraq in the border city of Qaim, one of many areas in the region where Iraqi government forces have feared to take up positions or moved out. Al Qaeda fighters recently carried out public executions of men suspected of supporting U.S. forces or the Iraqi government.
"Whoever is protected by Americans is in our sight and in the range of our fire," Zarqawi's group declared in statements posted Thursday in Anbar province's capital of Ramadi, which along with nearby Fallujah is a major stronghold of the estimated 30,000 U.S. forces in the western province. The statement appeared hours after al Qaeda rocket and mortar strikes on U.S. military installations in Ramadi killed one Marine.
The same morning, scores of al Qaeda fighters streamed into the streets of Ramadi, taking up positions with new automatic weapons. Witnesses said one group of insurgents proudly displayed a new rocket launcher that put U.S. armored vehicles in the glowing red beam of its targeting laser.
The fact that American forces still attack entire cities and towns in the west is a sign of how much territory remains out of U.S. and Iraqi government control, said Abu Hatem Dulaimi, a member of the Zarqawi-allied Ansar al-Sunna Army.
"I can say that the legend of the undefeated U.S. Army is gone, owing to our rockets and mines, which are separating them from it day after day," Dulaimi said in a telephone interview. "If they bet that time will be the way to end the resistance, they are wrong, because we are stronger since a year ago or maybe more."
Twenty-five members of Ansar al-Sunna killed themselves and others in suicide attacks last month, he said, and 53 volunteers for suicide attacks have arrived since.
"The problem is, I have seen no meaningful" goal posts, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "and a great many conflicting points" on U.S. claims to be winning against the insurgency.
While the U.S. military seems to have made some progress in parts of the west and parts of Baghdad, Cordesman said, "it isn't clear in doing so that it has really crippled any part of the insurgency."
Jeffrey White, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said insurgents have fought U.S.-led forces to a stalemate at least in Anbar province, northern Babil province and some other areas.The Meaning of Victory
After generally rejecting body counts as standards of success in the Iraq war, the U.S. military last week embraced them -- just as it did during the Vietnam War. As the carnage grew in Baghdad, U.S. officials produced charts showing the number of suspects killed or detained in offensives in the west.
Lynch, the military spokesman, cited killings and detentions of 1,534 insurgents in the region. The fact that the number of insurgents killed or captured in the northern city of Tall Afar was roughly equal to advance estimates of their strength, he said, was proof that insurgents weren't simply escaping to fight another day -- and that U.S. forces were doing more than razing infrastructure. "Zarqawi is on the ropes," Lynch told reporters.
It was not clear, however, how many of those detained or killed in the offensives were insurgents. Since 2003, U.S. forces have detained 40,000 people, twice U.S. generals' highest public estimate of the number of fighters in the insurgency. On Saturday, the Iraqi government said it had released for lack of evidence more than 500 of the 757 suspects detained in ongoing operations in the northern city of Mosul.
Many of the men detained in Tall Afar last week were rounded up on the advice of local teenagers who had stepped forward as informants, at times for what American soldiers said they suspected amounted to no more than settling local scores.
"The question is, what does victory mean? It certainly isn't the number of people we kill or detain," Cordesman said. The U.S. death and detention counts have "zero credibility," since U.S. forces provide little detail on those being killed and detained, he said.
U.S. military officials have set broad goals for what constitutes victory in Iraq, including denying terrorists a haven and reducing the insurgency to a level that the fledgling Iraqi security forces can handle. The United States aims to leave behind an Iraq with a representative government that respects human rights and is at peace with its neighbors, the officials said.
The effort against the insurgency clearly has made some gains. Iraqi forces, disbanded in 2003, have been rebuilt to 190,000 trained and equipped members, according to U.S. figures. With Saddam Hussein-era veterans leading them, the Iraqi forces appear to be a credible army in some areas.
Iraq's disaffected Sunni Arab minority has been at least partly persuaded to join the political process to regain a measure of its power, a shift that might help defuse the homegrown part of the insurgency. And Iraqis as a whole show little support for Zarqawi and have resisted his efforts to goad Sunnis and Shiites into civil war.
From Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, down to his underlings, American officials have insisted this summer that, at the least, the insurgency is not growing. Pressed to explain the claim, U.S. military officials said recently that they meant only that they believe the insurgency remains concentrated in no more than four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
But Cordesman, the Washington-based analyst, said there was evidence that more foreign volunteers were arriving and more Iraqis were joining the insurgency. U.S. officials claim to have eliminated a number of insurgent leaders, he said, but the insurgency doesn't seem to have slowed.
"On a day-to-day basis, the overall level of security is obviously low. We can't secure the airport road, can't stop the incoming into the Green Zone, can't stop the killings and kidnappings," Cordesman said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces offer scant protection to any Iraqis who stand up to Zarqawi's fighters. Insurgents -- through intimidation rather than popularity -- still have the upper hand in cities and towns where the U.S. and Iraqi military presence is weak and transient. In Anbar, a tribe near Qaim that vowed to fight Zarqawi was left this month battered and holed up in its village, calling for U.S. help.
"Is there enough force here right now to secure this area permanently? No. Are there opportunities for the enemy in other areas within our region? Yes," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tall Afar.
For Zarqawi's purposes, U.S. claims of denying insurgents a lasting haven probably mean little, Cordesman said. "Being fluid, dynamic, scattered, broken out into cells seems to be the way any effective insurgency wins, or certainly endures," he said.A Multifaceted Solution
Since the start of the war, the U.S. military appears to have been limited by having too few troops to block either the emergence or the growth of the insurgency. Last week, Lynch advised what he called "combat patience" regarding plans to target the insurgents' Euphrates River strongholds in western Anbar. U.S. ground commanders there have said thousands more American forces are needed to secure towns and close the Syrian border.
Cordesman and other analysts said that ultimately, a bulked-up U.S. presence in any one area, with troops who speak no Arabic and have comparatively little expertise in counterinsurgency, risks spurring new fighters to join the insurgency at least as fast as old ones are eliminated.
The answer, military officials and analysts say, lies in something the U.S. and Iraqi governments haven't been able to achieve: the creation of a truly national army that includes Sunni Arabs for deployment into Anbar and other hot spots, and of a national government that gives the Sunni minority back a share of political power.
"You can't win in Anbar, Baghdad or anywhere else except politically," Cordesman said.