By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq-- Three separate but related wars are being waged in this country now, and the third one, against Shiite extremists, is the most worrisome, according to the commander and senior staff of the U.S. Army division patrolling Baghdad.
The first, against al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni group that U.S. officials believe is foreign-led, is going well despite occasional spikes in violence, such as Friday's dual bombings of Baghdad marketplaces. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is "frustrated" but "not defeated," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey W. Hammond, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said in an interview last week.
The second fight, against the domestic Sunni insurgency, has become dormant in many places in the past year, as about 80,000 armed men, many of them former insurgents, switched sides and came onto the U.S. payroll with groups that officers here call "Concerned Local Citizens."
The third conflict, and perhaps the most vexing for U.S. commanders, is with Shiite extremist militias. More than two-thirds of U.S. casualties are caused by roadside bombs, particularly by high-tech anti-armor devices, planted by those groups.
Overall, senior U.S. officers find the state of the wars unexpectedly good, and are allowing themselves to begin speaking optimistically. "A year ago, I didn't see any way it was going to work out to our advantage," said Col. James Rainey, the 4th Infantry Division's director of operations, who is on his third tour of duty in Iraq. The difference now, he said, is "remarkable."
A major reason for the change, he said, is the increased effectiveness of the Iraqi army and police, to which the U.S. military refers collectively as Iraqi security forces, or ISF. "The ISF, when I was over here last time, couldn't do anything," Rainey said. Now, he continued, they frequently show tactical competence. That's crucial for future security here, because as U.S. troop numbers drop by about 25,000 between now and midsummer, to roughly 130,000, Iraqi forces will be handed a greater share of the burden.
At the same time, the officers are conscious that the fighting here has morphed several times over the past five years, as adversaries have adjusted to changes in U.S. tactics. Some officers worry that various factions, taken aback by how effective U.S. operations proved in the past year after several years of frequent counterproductive effect, are lying low as they try to devise new ways to attack.
For example, as measures such as checkpoints outside marketplaces have made car bombs less effective in inflicting mass casualties, said Maj. Jeff Jones, the division's deputy chief of intelligence, al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to turn more to suicide bombers.
Car bombs killed 206 people in the Baghdad area in January last year and 253 in February, according to Jones. The number remained high during the summer, with 186 people dying in such attacks in July. But since then the numbers have come down sharply, with just 13 killed by car bombs in November and 12 in December.
Lately, Jones said, al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to attack local armed groups who are cooperating with U.S. forces. The majority of those groups are Sunni, and the attacks now mean that al-Qaeda in Iraq is "the single largest killer of Sunnis in Iraq," he said.
The most challenging part of the war in early 2008 appears to be roadside bombs planted by Shiite extremist groups.
The U.S. military calls those organizations "special groups," to distinguish them from other Islamic fighters under the sway of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. U.S. officials hope Sadr will give up violence as a political tool altogether, rather than declare a six-month cease-fire, as he did in August.
The U.S. government believes that the special groups are heavily supported by Iran. The groups have been especially effective in using explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, sophisticated bombs designed to destroy armored vehicles. "It's high-end technology," said Rainey, the division's operations chief. "It's not four dudes making them in a basement."
Attacks using those bombs were a near-daily occurrence in mid-2007 as the groups reacted to the U.S. military counteroffensive known as "the surge." From April through October, detonations of the powerful weapons happened nearly every day, on average, with a peak of 36 in July.
The U.S. military's ability to find the bombs has not notably improved. In January 2007, before the surge began, 31 such bombs were planted. U.S. troops found 14 before they were detonated; the other 17 went off. Last month's numbers were similar: The same number were planted, and U.S. troops detected 16, with 15 exploding.
The continuing success of those attacks is forcing U.S. troops to attempt to look two ways at once. Al-Qaeda in Iraq's car bomb attacks against civilians "are the biggest threat to our mission," which is to protect the population, Rainey said. But, he added, "the biggest threat to our soldiers is the EFPs."
"The biggest thing that makes this difficult to defeat is that the Iraqis don't care" about roadside bombs, said Col. Allen W. Batschelet, the division's chief of staff. "They don't turn in a lot of tips. We don't get a lot of help."
The key to defeating roadside bombs is having U.S. troops living and patrolling in the city's neighborhoods, the officers noted. Hammond said he intends to continue the 2007 pattern of moving U.S. troops off big forward operating bases, or FOBs, and into small outposts in the city.
"If I have it my way -- and I'm going to get it my way -- I'm going to move every brigade off the FOB," with even their headquarters located in small outlying stations, Hammond said.