IRAQ: Resistance to U.S. Forces

February 16, 2005

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How organized are the ongoing attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq?

There are some signs that Iraqi resistance is growing increasingly organized, though experts caution that information from the field remains contradictory and incomplete. Twelve U.S. or British soldiers were killed in a surge of attacks during the week of June 23. The U.S. combat death toll since President Bush announced the end of major combat operations May 1 stands at 22.

Where are the attacks taking place?

Most of the deadly attacks have occurred in a triangle of Sunni-dominated territory that is home to many Saddam Hussein loyalists. That area stretches 100 miles north of Baghdad to Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, and 30 miles west to the town of Fallujah, the site of perhaps the fiercest insurgency. But violence has also broken out in Shiite regions south of the capital. On June 26, a U.S. Army military policeman in Najaf was ambushed and killed while investigating a car theft. On June 24, six British soldiers were killed after being besieged by a mob in a town 90 miles north of Basra.

What are the signs that some attacks are organized?

Some show a fairly professional level of military skill, with coordinated movements of groups of fighters, U.S. officials and military experts say. In another indication, U.S. forces rounding up Saddam loyalists have found large caches of money and weapons that appear to be intended to help the resistance. The attackers have been using many of the same strategies favored by organized groups of Saddam backers during the war--ambushes, drive-by shootings, sniper attacks, and ruses.

Is any Iraqi group claiming responsibility for the attacks?

More than one group has emerged in recent days to claim responsibility for attacks and exhort Iraqis to resist the occupation. U.S. officials say they have no way of analyzing the credibility of these claims. On June 26, the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera aired statements from two alleged resistance groups, the Mujahadeen of the Victorious Sect and the Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Iraq. Last week, The Washington Post reported that, in Fallujah, a group of armed fighters from Saddam’s Baath Party and security agencies had organized a loose network called the Return, or Awdah in Arabic, with the aim of driving U.S. forces out of the country.

Are only troops being targeted?

No. Some recent attacks appear to be against Iraqis--apparently to discourage cooperation with Americans and hinder reconstruction progress. Haifa Aziz Daoud, a mother of five and the manager of power distribution for half of Baghdad, was killed in her home June 25, The New York Times reported. Another power official came under grenade attack the following day. Insurgents have fired rocket-propelled grenades at the courthouse and the office of the U.S.-backed mayor in Fallujah, and on June 18, fired a mortar round into a building being used by U.S. forces in Samarra, a city between Tikrit and Baghdad, killing one Iraqi and injuring 12.

What do U.S. officials say about the level of organized resistance?

Over the past several weeks, U.S. officials have cast doubt on the idea that the attacks could be the opening salvos of an organized, nationwide resistance movement commanded by remnants of Saddam’s regime or Saddam himself. On June 27, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said some of the violence could be attributed to the approximately "hundred thousand people turned out of [Iraqi] prisons" in the weeks preceding the start of the war and to "leftover remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime that are doing things that are against the coalition." Air Force General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said June 24 that it was "uncertain" whether the attacks were being organized.

Do military experts believe the attacks are organized?

In general, experts say the attacks in Iraq look like a mixture of organized and local insurgency. "Some of it is pretty good military planning, and other stuff just looks like fighters hitting targets of opportunity," says Major General William Nash (ret.), a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), agrees. "It’s much more likely to be a mix of organized and local resistance," he says.

Who are the attackers?

Some are holdouts from Saddam’s most loyal security forces, including Baath Party fighters, the Fedayeen Saddam militia, the Iraqi Special Republican Guard, and Iraqi intelligence services, U.S. commanders say. Some appear to be militant Islamic volunteers from other countries; a group of suspect Palestinians and Jordanians, for example, was recently captured in Baghdad. A third type of fighter appears to be "just some plain Iraqis who are poor and are being paid to attack U.S. forces," Major General Ray Odierno, commander of the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, said June 18. And sometimes, such as in the mob attack near Basra, the assailants appear to include ordinary Iraqis angered by the coalition’s presence and actions in Iraq.

How many forces loyal to Saddam are still in Iraq?

It is difficult to know, but if prewar estimates of Iraqi military strength were accurate, the numbers could be in the thousands. Analysts estimated that among the most loyal forces were 60,000 to 70,000 Republican Guard troops and 15,000 men in the Special Republican Guard--the military unit closest to Saddam. In addition, there were some 30,000 Fedayeen Saddam militia members, as well as tens of thousands of men working in some capacity for Saddam’s security services.

What happened to the Republican Guard and other fighting units after the war ended?

Far fewer Iraqi soldiers were captured than coalition forces expected, which means most soldiers--even from the elite security units--blended into the Iraqi population. During the war, U.S. and British troops captured some 13,800 Iraqis from among the elite forces and the 300,000 to 350,000 regular Iraqi Army troops. Independent analysts place the number of Iraqi military killed at between 5,000 and 10,000; the U.S. government said it did not keep track of Iraqi deaths.

In the 1991 Gulf War, by comparison, some 71,000 men were captured. Estimates of the number killed range widely, but some analysts place the number between 75,000 and 100,000.

How serious is the threat against U.S. forces?

It’s hard to judge. Rumsfeld said June 18 that the attackers are organized into "pockets of dead-enders," small groups usually made up of about 10 or 20 gunmen. But some experts caution that, unless it is put down quickly and aggressively, the low-level, loosely coordinated insurgency campaign apparently underway could grow more organized over time. "I’m concerned," says General Wayne Downing, who resigned in 2002 as director of the National Security Council’s Office of Combating Terrorism. "Because there are so many of the low-level Saddam loyalists still out there and because we don’t have proof that Saddam and his sons are dead. Many Iraqis believe that Saddam and his regime could still come back."

How many attacks have there been?

The Pentagon has not released a total, but some reports indicate there may be as many as a dozen attempted attacks per day. Six U.S. soldiers died in hostile incidents in May; sixteen were killed in June, according to the Department of Defense. At least 63 U.S. soldiers have died since President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq May 1, most in noncombat-related accidents. During the war, 138 U.S. soldiers died, including those killed accidentally.

In what way do the attacks show evidence of military training?

In one recent ambush, U.S. commanders say, five or six Iraqis provided cover fire while one slipped out of a ditch and placed an explosive under a U.S. tank. Iraqis in Fallujah have been using a system of flares to signal the approach of U.S. troops. They have also cut off electricity in parts of the town before an attack, according to press reports.

What countermeasures are U.S. troops taking?

The United States has begun large-scale military operations to root out the insurgents. In Operation Peninsula Strike, which took place in mid-June, hundreds of infantrymen supported by helicopters and armored vehicles swept into a region 40 miles north of Baghdad. Four hundred Iraqis were arrested; all but sixty were subsequently released, press reports said. Operation Sidewinder, which began June 29, will be an extended campaign to search suspect areas and homes for resistance fighters. Military experts say aggressive strikes against insurgents, coupled with efforts to improve public services and quality of life for Iraqis, are the key to stopping the attacks. "It has to be a mixture of carrots and sticks. These things go hand-in-hand," Cordesman says.

Are there enough coalition soldiers in Iraq to stop the attacks?

Experts disagree. Colonel Ken Allard (ret.), a military analyst at CSIS, for example, says that security would improve if there were more coalition forces on the ground. There are currently 146,000 U.S. troops and approximately 12,000 British troops in Iraq; 20,000 to 30,000 troops from Poland, Italy, Spain, and other nations are expected to arrive in August.

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Major General Robert Scales (ret.), the former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, on the other hand, says that gathering information about who is organizing and conducting the attacks is more important than bringing in more troops. "What’s missing isn’t troops, what’s missing is intelligence," he says.

How could U.S. forces gather more information about the insurgency?

Through the same combination of "carrots and sticks"--improving living conditions to gain the confidence of Iraqis and conducting aggressive operations against the violent resistance--that will reduce the incentive to fight coalition troops, some experts say. Capturing Saddam or proving he’s dead would also encourage more Iraqis to provide information on the insurgents, experts say.

Are the U.S. troops using disproportionate force to control dissent?

Perhaps. Of particular concern, say human rights groups, are two incidents in which U.S. forces fired into crowds of demonstrators, reportedly killing 17 people in Fallujah on April 28 and two in Baghdad on June 18. A June Human Rights Watch report charges that U.S. forces lack training in peacekeeping and crowd control tactics and requests an official inquiry into the Fallujah crowd shooting. House-to-house searches, especially those conducted without an Iraqi man present, have incensed traditional Muslim families in Fallujah and elsewhere. If the counterinsurgency campaign is to succeed, a balance must be struck between aggressive policing and respect for the local population, military experts say. Training and deploying more Iraqi police forces could help, Downing says.

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