A tactical window of opportunity

Hussein's nabbing may offer US an opening to soften tactics in Iraq.

The capture of Saddam Hussein has perhaps validated the US military's toughened anti-insurgent tactics in Iraq - and presented the Pentagon with an opportunity to change them.

Iraqi violence had been declining even before Hussein stumbled out of his underground hideout, due in part to the aggressive raids and patrols of "Iron Hammer" and other US operations. Daily attacks on American troops have declined by about half in the past month.

Now, like a boxer stunned by a left hook, the insurgency might need time to regroup from the blow of Hussein's imprisonment. Such a pause could provide US commanders with time to curtail some activities in an attempt to do better at winning over more hearts and minds.

"The coalition forces have a unique window here," says retired US Army Col. Dan Smith. "They ought to quit kicking in doors ... and give the angry but not actively anticoalition Iraqis a chance to think about what the situation is now."

This doesn't mean that the end of Hussein's career will end the Iraqi insurgency. Many of the estimated 5,000 guerrillas fighting the US are former military officials or committed Baath Party members for whom the new Iraq promises nothing but prison. Some may be common criminals. Some may be Islamic terrorists.

The hope of a Hussein restoration may have inspired them, but so did cash - and much of the money that has paid for insurgent activities remains at large. Hussein was found with a case containing $750,000 in US hundred-dollar bills, after all. Experts note that many such greenback-stuffed cases probably remain at large.

Hussein might provide information about associates still at large. His debriefing, plus documents found in the compound where he was captured, have already led to the capture of several prominent former regime members in Baghdad, according to US military sources.

Yet US experience has proved that even damaged insurgent cells can reconstitute themselves. And Hussein was spending too much time trying to save himself to know much about attacks in his name. "It would be premature to conclude that Saddam's capture is a big turning point," says John Pike, a military expert at Globalsecurity.org.

Indeed, President Bush opened a meeting with reporters Monday by warning of "further sacrifice" ahead for coalition forces. But he said that the capture of the former Iraqi dictator was clear evidence that Iraq is "on the path to freedom."

As long as Hussein was at large, many Iraqis worried he would wait out the Americans and return to power. That possibility is gone. But ordinary Iraqis have worried about the explosion of violence in cities, the lack of power and water, and the tattered remnants the economy. Hussein's capture does little to reassure them on these points.

Hussein's imprisonment "is not going to help us with the hearts-and-minds part of the struggle, and that is the part we have been losing," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner.

Perhaps. But other experts note that the US now has an opening to redouble its attention to hearts-and-minds tactics.

That's because insurgents may mount a few offensives to prove they haven't gone away, and then regroup to decide what to do next.

"They will be stunned for a few months and that will open an opportunity for us to move in and make a difference in other ways," says Dr. Steven Metz, director of research at US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute.

Iraqis might be more willing to offer intelligence now - and the US should move with care to make use of it. US officials in Iraq could make gestures of accommodation to former members of the army or Baath Party not tainted by crimes. And the US must reach out to Sunni Muslims and make them feel they will not be an oppressed minority, says Dr. Metz. As the base of Hussein's support and longtime overlord of the Shiite majority, many Sunnis are wary of US efforts to form a new government.

"We need to move toward a [confederated] Iraq, so even though it will be a democracy the Sunnis can have some control and autonomy in their own region," says Metz.

In the end, Hussein's capture may raise US expectations too high. Troops won't come home on an accelerated schedule. Tough days of US casualties are likely to remain ahead. The US tends to personalize its adversaries, notes Dr. William Rosenau, a counterinsurgency expert at RAND. As with Hussein in Iraq, the US has focused on Osama bin Laden as the face of Islamic terrorism, he notes. Yet the neutralization of both men would not necessarily stop the forces they represent. "The movements themselves will continue for a lot of reasons," he says.

Brad Knickerbocker contributed to this report.

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