BAGHDAD — A ground-to-air missile attack on a US C-130 transport plane at Baghdad airport on Wednesday was a sign of a worst-case scenario that soldiers here have been dreading.
The attack failed, but the attempt points to a potential level of risk beyond the grenades and killings of individual soldiers that have made major news in recent weeks.
The good news from a military perspective is that if there were large numbers of organized Saddam loyalists or Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq, US casualties would likely have numbered dozens each day, not one or two. Even a single sniper operating out of the crumbling maze of Baghdad streets could operate with relative impunity, so the evidence suggests that the hard-core resistance is in fact small.
But some older veterans here wonder what will happen to US public opinion should an attack kill dozens or hundreds of troops in one fell swoop.
They rattle off the possibilities: car bombs; mortar attacks on the coalition headquarters in Baghdad; ambushes of supply convoys on the long and exposed road to Kuwait; and infiltration by some of the 7,500 Iraqis who now have work passes to get inside coalition headquarters. If 99.9 percent of those people are friendly, about seven of the enemy are already gathering intelligence to plan future attacks from inside the coalition's most sensitive location.
And with nearly 150,000 soldiers in country there is no shortage of targets. Highlighting the threat, American forces found about four tons of military explosives in central Iraq Thursday, a senior official at the Pentagon told the Associated Press. Troops found the stash about 30 miles southwest of Baghdad after being tipped by Iraqis, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
US Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid said the anti-occupation threat was nothing that the troops couldn't handle. "They're not driving us out of anywhere," he said Wednesday.
But General Abizaid also used the term "guerrilla warfare" to describe the pattern of attacks on US forces, a striking departure for a top US military leader. Pentagon officials have long spurned the term, saying attacks in Iraq were too disorganized to qualify as a guerrilla campaign.
Among the troops there is talk of interpreters who have been canned because of suspected links to the Iranian intelligence services, and interpreters who like working for the Coalition but fear threats against their families by extremists, as exemplified by the assassination on Wednesday of a pro-American mayor and his son.
Analysts suggest that the Bush administration has avoided making the politically difficult decision to deploy 30-40,000 more troops to truly secure the key roads to Amman, Jordan, or the Baghdad airport. They argue that the Bush administration message is: "Trust us, we have things under control," leaving some soldiers here wondering if the White House really understands the situation.
"No, they don't understand," says Kenneth Allard, an expert on international peacekeeping for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who says there is clearly insufficient force in the field for this stage of the war.
Mr. Allard, who served in the military in Bosnia, says Democrats aren't helping matters by focusing on issues such as intelligence estimates or failures.
"That's all water under the bridge now," Allard says, adding that what matters now is finally winning the war and eventually bringing troops home.
Though most soldiers still believe in the mission here, many say they would appreciate honesty from back home, not sugar-coating. Consider this parallel: Baghdad's airport is only a few miles outside the city, a similar setting to Washington's Reagan National Airport or Boston's Logan. Yet over two months after major combat supposedly ended, the short road to the airport is still not secure.
Compounding the long-term challenge is the fact that troops feel not only that they're overextended, but that they're being asked to do jobs they aren't ready for.
Soldiers from the Florida National Guard are still on security duty around coalition headquarters in Baghdad, and members of the 3rd Infantry Division directly criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on TV this week.
"We just keep getting thrown from one wolf to another," says one sergeant in the National Guard unit, noting that they had fought up from Kuwait in the first wave of the war, even though they had no training in desert warfare.
Now, they're being asked to provide security in what "is really an MP [military police] job," the sergeant says. "We have no training for this, either."
Allard says that politicians at home are forgetting that numbers aren't all that matters.
"It's not just having boots on the ground - it's having the right kind of boots," he says, pointing to the need for additional engineering, civil affairs, and MP units.
And with an occupation that seems destined to last for years, not months, Allard says no one in Washington is "stepping up to the plate" as far as addressing long-term needs. If the troops in the field are stretched thin after six months, the morale situation will likely be much worse around the holidays, when the absence of family and friends is most keenly felt.