US fights shifting Iraqi foes

A US general outlines four distinct groups of insurgents and their tactics and targets.

A month ago, suicide car-bombings appeared to be Iraq's greatest security problem. In recent weeks, there's been a sharp spike in targeted assassinations of both foreigners and locals - including a failed attempt Sunday on Iraq's minister of public works - working with the coalition. And in recent days, firefights and roadside bombs have been on the rise again.

Nothing does more to bring home the multifaceted nature of the US-led coalition's enemies in Iraq than the welter of methods, ideologies, and targets. Despite coalition successes against the insurgency - particularly fighters close to Saddam Hussein's Baath regime - attacks persist. Coalition officials expect them to only increase as June 30, the day US has set for handing over sovereignty to the Governing Council, approaches.

Analysts say one of the crucial lessons of the continued fighting is that the strongest military in the world, no matter how well-trained or well-led, cannot end the resistance in an Arab nation where the political stakes are so high and latent anger against foreign powers so great.

It's a point that coalition officials agree with, and they're pinning their hopes on the handover as the start of a political process that will get buy-in from almost all Iraqi groups and convince the nation's Sunni Arabs, the minority who've ruled Iraq since at least the Ottoman Empire, that they won't lose out in a democracy that will see Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, take the lion's share of power.

"In my experience of wars like this, it really isn't possible to suppress these sorts of attacks militarily," says Col. Patrick Lang, a retired Army officer who served as head of human intelligence and head of Middle East and terrorism intelligence for the Department of Defense in the 1990s, and is now in the private sector. "You need a political solution to this kind of violence, one that doesn't just simply leave the Shia in charge."

For now, the US military is staying focused on the insurgents. Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, assistant division commander of the 1st Armored Division and head of security in and around Baghdad, sees four threats: [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated Hertling's rank and unit.]

Terrorist cells set up and encouraged by Saddam Hussein; Iraqi Sunni Islamists seeking to set up an Islamic state here, but whose objectives are largely national, rather than pan-Islamic, in scope; foreign fighters, many inspired or financed by Al Qaeda, seeking both to strike at their great enemy the US and simultaneously advance the cause of an Islamic superstate arcing across the Middle East; and local criminals, who provide weapons and support to some or all of the above.

General Hertling and his intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Ken Devan, say they've made the most progress against fighters linked to Hussein.

Colonel Devan says the 14 Baath cells in and around Baghdad have been "significantly disrupted" by dozens of arrests and interrogations, increasing cooperation from Iraqi civilians, and an operation late last year - dubbed Iron Hammer - that aggressively sought to destroy safe houses and arrest mid-level couriers and financiers. A similar pattern of success against Baathists has been described by commanders from Tikrit, the former strongman's hometown, to Mosul in the north.

"We had a pretty good windfall of intelligence in December, not just the capture of Saddam but also operation Iron Hammer was very, very successful,'' says General Hertling, who says the demonstrated will to go after the Baathists brought more informants out of the woodwork. "A lot of Iraqis started coming forward and told us 'you should have done something like this a long time ago.' "

US forces have had less obvious success against the Islamist militants, but they say many successes haven't been reported, in part because they don't want to compromise ongoing intelligence operations. Devan describes the arrest of a terrorist cell recently composed of Yemenis, Saudis, and a Moroccan.

But there has been little apparent progress made into investigations of the suicide bombings. Attacks ranging from one on the UN headquarters last August to multiple police-station bombings and a series of hotel attacks across Iraq have gone unsolved.

Officials here say that there usually isn't enough human intelligence to uncover the cells that supported the attacks and the forensic evidence is usually difficult to exploit. For instance, in stable countries investigators can usually figure out who owned the vehicle used in car-bomb attacks within days by using serial numbers from engine blocks. But with few centralized records in Iraq, such information is next to useless.

Even when foreign fighters are arrested, unlike the Baathists whose information discipline wasn't as good, they've little of value to yield to interrogators.

"This is an atomized force working against us, composed of at least four to five different groups broken down even further into small cells,'' says Martha Kessler, a retired US intelligence officer and expert on the Middle East. "They know the steps necessary to minimize the damage from forced debriefing from those captured. They know how to compartmentalized information. And they are near genius at employing low-tech communication, weapons, and guerrilla tactics."

Devan points out that with so many civilian hotbeds of anger, like the town of Fallujah, where US Marines fought house to house against locals for hours last Friday, insurgents can still find safe places to hide. He compares the challenges investigators face to the relative ease with which investigators in Madrid arrested suspects within days of the train attacks there earlier this month.

The key there, he says, was the almost universal support of the local population, which yielded information on the movement and location of suspicious men shortly before the attacks. But he points out that Spain has struggled to make progress against another form of terrorism - that tied to Basque separatists - because they, like the terrorists in Iraq, have pockets of local supporters who will hide them.

In the long run, Colonel Lang says international terrorists within Iraq may be easier to deal with than domestic insurgents. "The suicide attacks are mostly pointed at us, as part of the worldwide jihadi objective against the US, but they're likely to subside" if the internal political situation can be resolved.

That leaves the military and intelligence officers redoubling their efforts as June 30 approaches, seeking to limit the damage of attacks that are strategically insignificant from a military standpoint, but politically very dangerous. "There are people here who want to prevent a representative government from ever taking root," says Hertling.

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