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In Postwar Iraq, the Battle Widens
Recent Attacks on U.S. Forces Raise Concerns of a Guerrilla Conflict

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Washington Post coverage from March-April 2003, including articles, videos, photos and opinion.

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By Thomas E. Ricks and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 7, 2003; Page A01

Recent Iraqi attacks on U.S. troops have demonstrated a new tactical sophistication and coordination that raise the specter of the U.S. occupation force becoming enmeshed in a full-blown guerrilla war, military experts said yesterday.

The new approaches employed in the Iraqi attacks last week are provoking concern among some that what once was seen as a mopping-up operation against the dying remnants of a deposed government is instead becoming a widening battle against a growing and organized force that could keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops busy for months.

Pentagon officials continue to insist that the U.S. military is not caught in an anti-guerrilla campaign in Iraq, that the fighting still is limited mainly to the Sunni heartland northwest of Baghdad and that progress is being made elsewhere in the country. "There's been an awful lot of work done," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told "Fox News Sunday" in an interview taped last week. "A lot of the country is relatively stable."

But a growing number of military specialists, and some lawmakers, are voicing concern about trends in Iraq. There is even some quiet worry at the Pentagon, where some officers contend privately that the size of the U.S. deployment in Iraq -- now about 150,000 troops -- is inadequate for force protection, much less for peacekeeping. The Army staff is reexamining force requirements and looking again at the numbers generated in the months before the war, said a senior officer who asked not to be named.

"If you talk to the guys in Iraq, they will tell you that it's urban combat over there," the officer said. "They all are saying, 'What we have is not enough to keep the peace.' "

"In Iraq," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the intelligence committee, said on CNN's "Late Edition" yesterday, "we're now fighting an anti-guerrilla . . . effort."

Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said: "Our troops are stretched very, very thin. We should ask other countries" to send troops, including Germany, France, India and Egypt.

"It is an absolute mystery to me" that NATO has not been asked to authorize the deployment of member forces in Iraq, Levin, who just returned from a three-day visit to Iraq, said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press." Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) noted, however, that the administration anticipates "30,000 troops from other nations will be involved before year's end."

But it is not clear that those foreign troops will be forthcoming in the numbers expected, especially if fighting in Iraq intensifies.

"The increasing enemy activity in Iraq is very unsettling," said retired Marine Lt. Col. John Poole, a specialist in small-unit infantry tactics. "It could mean that the situation has started to escalate into a guerrilla war."

Retired Army Col. Richard Dunn, a former head of the Army's internal think tank, agreed, saying, "I'd like to be wrong on this, but we may be seeing a classic insurgency situation developing." At the same time, he said, it is possible that "we may just be seeing a surge of activity that they're unable to sustain."

Last week, 45 armed men began a concentrated assault against a U.S. convoy north of Baghdad. And attacks in the capital appear to be more effective.

In one incident, an Iraqi stood up in a moving car and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Army Humvee. In addition, snipers have been hitting troops in Baghdad. Over the weekend, one 1st Armored Division soldier guarding the National Museum was shot and killed, and another died in a similar attack at Baghdad University, in a neighborhood that had been considered quiet.

With the two weekend deaths, the U.S. toll grew to 209, including 70 troops killed since President Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1.

Overall, some U.S. soldiers at fixed points such as road checkpoints and outposts say the attacks on them are far more widespread and persistent than is reflected in the casualty figures.

In contrast to the head-on charges that some Iraqi fighters launched against U.S. tanks in the war, the attacks now tend to focus on more vulnerable parts of the military, such as isolated checkpoints and slow-moving convoys, and not against strengths, such as armored units.

In another worrisome development, Iraqis who are working with the U.S. occupation force are being targeted. Most recently, on Saturday, seven new police officers who were graduating from a training academy were killed by a bomb.

Roberts, who just returned from a congressional trip to Iraq, said it is essential for the U.S. effort to capture or kill deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. "Not only is he aiming at Americans, but now he is aiming at Iraqis who will cooperate," Roberts said. "So it's a big-ticket item for us. . . . The next hundred days are very, very critical."

In addition, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that on the trip to Iraq, U.S. commanders indicated they were seeing the beginnings of regional coordination in the attacks on U.S. soldiers.

The increase in the use of mortars in recent attacks is especially troubling, military experts noted, because it indicates a previously unseen level of organization in the Iraqi resistance. Unlike more portable arms such as AK-47 rifles, mortars are heavy weapons that need to be stored, moved, fired, then broken down and quickly moved again. Military organizations using mortars tend to operate in teams of at least 10, noted one specialist in infantry tactics. "That means a leader and a plan," he said.

In addition, mortars are particularly effective weapons for small bands fighting larger units in static positions, as in the case of a July 3 attack on a 4th Infantry Division logistics post near the town of Balad that wounded 16 soldiers. The origin of mortar fire can be difficult to pinpoint because their tubes fire in a high arc rather than on a level trajectory, as tanks and rifles do. The spray of shrapnel from just a few shells can cause dozens of casualties.

"Pre-registered mortars and long-range sniper fire are among the easiest ways to inflict casualties," said Poole, who wrote "Phantom Soldier: The Enemy's Answer to U.S. Firepower" and several other texts on infantry tactics.

Poole says he worries that the aim of the Iraqi attacks is not to defeat U.S. forces as much as it is to provoke them. He says the Iraqi intent is to wage a war of attrition, causing enough casualties that U.S. commanders "use an increasingly heavy hand." In that way, the U.S. forces "will automatically alienate the local populace."

Similarly, retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, an expert on counter-insurgency tactics, also saw a danger in the United States acting in a manner that would erode popular Iraqi support and broaden the Iraqi resistance. The aim of Iraqi fighters, he suggested, is "to get our folks to overreact and foment a popular uprising by some incident that we create by the overreaction."

Those concerns elevate the issue of U.S. soldiers' morale -- which anecdotally appears to be low among some members of the 3rd Infantry Division and also among some reservists -- from a relatively minor "quality of life" problem to a major military issue because it can affect the battle for "the hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.

Soldiers who are unhappy and think only about leaving can easily lose control of the tactical situation, one infantry expert said. "If you act sullen or afraid or mean, it's hard to claim we are liberators," he said. "That causes the Iraqis to react."

There generally are three key measures of military operations: duration, intensity and scope. It now appears that the U.S. military -- and just about everybody else -- miscalculated on the first two parameters: the postwar fighting is lasting longer than was generally expected, and it is becoming more intense, not less. About 28 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in June, more than twice the death toll for May. Many of those casualties occurred in vehicle accidents, but soldiers in Iraq say that even those crashes are attributable in part to the fighting, because Humvee drivers often travel at unsafe speeds to lessen the chance of being ambushed.

The third measure, scope, is murkier. Officials and experts are debating whether the war is expanding geographically and demographically, from just Sunnis and Hussein's Baath Party diehards to others, such as Shiites and Islamic extremists and the average Iraqi on the street.

Assessing this aspect of the fighting is made more difficult because U.S. tactics have not been static either. In late April and early May, the main U.S. force in Baghdad, the 3rd Infantry Division, was hunkered down in combat positions and rarely conducted foot patrols in the capital. In late May, the 1st Armored Division replaced the 3rd Infantry as the main peacekeeping force in the city and "flooded the zone" with patrols, notably increasing the sense of security in the city. Then, in June, the United States began a series of offensives against resistance fighters in the hardcore "Sunni triangle" northwest of Baghdad.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Myers contended in the Fox interview that the war is not expanding and that almost all the fighting is still taking place in that triangle. "In the north and in the south, the situation is basically stable," he said. "In the Sunni areas -- Baghdad, Tikrit, down to Ar Ramadi, sort of a triangle there -- that's where 90 percent of the incidents are."

In stressing that the threat is not monolithic, Myers gave a detailed account of exactly who may be trying to undermine the U.S. mission. He said five threats included remnants of Hussein's government and military, foreign fighters, a fundamentalist group know as Ansar al-Islam, criminals released from jail and Sunni extremists. Although U.S. officials had previously described Ansar al-Islam as mostly defeated, Myers said, "their presence is, we think, growing inside Iraq and has to be dealt with."

Dunn, the former Army strategist, said he is encouraged by recent U.S. actions. "The key is to build an indigenous security capability that will eventually eliminate the guerilla's ability to force the population to support him," he said.

But there remains a nagging concern among experts that some of today's problems stem from the relatively small size of the U.S. and British invasion force in March and from other aspects of the war. In an analysis released over the weekend, Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Middle Eastern militaries at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, faulted not the war plan but the planning for what followed. "The problem is that two months after a great military victory, the U.S. and its allies have done far too little to win the peace," he said.

Ricks reported from Washington, Chandrasekaran from Baghdad. Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company