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The strategy of Iraq's insurgents

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2004


The US-led coalition authority restored sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government Monday two days earlier than scheduled to outflank insurgents threatening to mark the handover with a heightened campaign of violence.

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The surprise handover illustrates the damaging impact of the year-old insurgency on efforts to return stability to Iraq and the challenges that lie ahead for its new government.

"This is a historical day," Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said during the handover ceremony. "We feel we are capable of controlling the security situation."

But it will be no easy task to curb an insurgency that has evolved over the past year from classic guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against coalition troops to a fluid multidimensional campaign against a wide array of targets.

Many analysts expect the violence to worsen in coming months as the insurgents attempt to cripple an untested government. "I have never seen an insurgency that has been successfully defeated in months," says Bruce Hoffman, acting director of the Rand Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. "That's why insurgencies are so attractive to our opponents. Insurgents don't have to win, they just have to avoid losing, and that means they can prolong any conflict they're involved in."

In the past few weeks, militants have struck using numerous methods in a concerted effort to undermine the transfer of power. The attacks have included roadside bomb ambushes, drive-by hijackings and ambushes, kidnappings, mortar and rocket bombardments, suicide car bombings, simultaneous multiple bomb attacks nationwide, sabotage of oil pipelines, shooting at aircraft, and assassinations of government officials and political and religious figures.

Some analysts maintain that the coalition forces - from now on known as the Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNF) - failed to appreciate the strategic threat of the insurgency at the onset and have been inconsistent in their response.

"The insurgents have the initiative and are a constantly dynamic force whereas the coalition forces have been cast very much in a responsive mode," Dr. Hoffman says.

The US military lists its opponents as a mix of former regime loyalists, Iraqi nationalists and Islamists, common criminals freed from jail by Saddam Hussein, and foreign Islamic militants. But the level of coordination between them, if any, remains unclear.

In general, many analysts believe that former Iraqi Army Baathists conduct the bulk of daily attacks while foreign Islamic militants carry out the more spectacular suicide car bombings.

Many of the latter attacks have been pinned on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who heads the Al-Tawhid and Al-Jihad group. The US military believes that Zarqawi is holed up in the flash point town of Fallujah west of Baghdad and has launched several airstrikes against buildings suspected of being Tawhid hideouts. Still, the airstrikes appear to have done little to curb Zarqawi's activities. He claimed responsibility last week for a series of simultaneous bomb attacks around the country, which killed almost 100 people.

While the suicide bomb attacks capture the headlines, many attacks simply go unreported, especially those against coalition troops in the remoter areas of Iraq.

A senior military official admits that "there are 35 to 40, sometimes up to 60 or more attacks a day" against coalition troops. That rate is even higher than the surge of attacks in November when the insurgency took hold.

Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of the US Central Command, has likened the insurgency in Iraq to "a classical guerrilla-type campaign." But Mr. Hoffman, also a senior fellow at the US Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center, says that General Abizaid underestimated the opposition.