Evolution in Iraq's insurgency

Attacks on US troops are down 22 percent since January, but some are more sophisticated.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After the lowest monthly US casualties in a year, insurgents have come back this week with widespread strikes, killing several Americans and pulling off a sophisticated attack on Abu Ghraib that showed an evolution in planning and tactics.

Attacks on US forces have dropped 22 percent since the Jan. 30 election, to about 40 a day, about the rate they were a year ago. In March, 36 US troops were killed, the lowest figure in a year, according to icasualties.org, which tracks casualties announced by the government.

But this week, four soldiers and a marine were killed - and Saturday's well-organized attack on Abu Ghraib prison, in which 40 US troops and 12 prisoners were injured, suggests that fighters may be shifting to fewer but better executed operations, including ones that directly engage US forces.

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Iraq's political process will have more impact on the strength of the insurgency than any military operation. That effort got a boost Wednesday when the national assembly voted Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president. That step enables the rest of the government to be formed, a process that could take up to six weeks but is expected to be finished in the next week or so.

Despite excitement over the naming of the president, the rest of the government will have to be named quickly and produce tangible improvement in daily life if it is to erode support for the insurgency.

"Counterinsurgency is about governance," said Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an insurgency expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "You have to prove to the people you can govern them fairly and effectively - then they will tell you who the bad guys are."

Still, the insurgency's trends indicate that even at an average pace, the tough guerrilla warfare seen today is likely to continue for many years. "Don't expect solutions now. We're two years into this," Hammes says. "We're at the top of the third inning and this is a nine-inning game."

Iraqi targets

During the past few months, attacks on Iraqi forces and civilians have increased, the US military says, although they don't keep exact figures.

The trend is something Iraqi special forces soldier Ali Jabbar al-Aibi has observed from behind his truck-mounted machine gun. During his frequent nighttime operations, he is attacked almost every time.

The sense that insurgents are increasingly targeting him and his colleagues was confirmed to Mr. Aibi and his team of soldiers two weeks ago when they found a fatwa issued by a radical cleric during a raid in Samarra. It ordered jihad on Iraqi forces instead of American troops because the Iraqis are easier to attack.

Despite the increased dangers to Iraqis, the election has inspired more people to come forward with information about insurgents, says Aibi.

Those tips are prompting raids that are yielding insights on the state of the insurgents. Iraqi troops, for example, are finding fewer large weapons caches, something Aibi takes as a sign that the fighters are having supply problems.

"There's no comparison between before and now," he says, noting that they used to find stacks of dynamite, rockets, large machine guns, and mortars. "You couldn't believe it. A room this size full of weapons.... Now it's different."

Telltale signs

Overall, analysts point to what seems like a classic insurgency, one that is expected to increase in sophistication by learning from past mistakes and less capable fighters are killed off.

American forces have been responding like a typical conventional force, slowly recognizing the insurgency and gradually bringing in leaders and drawing up plans that can deal with it effectively.

All that usually takes about 10 years to end the fighting, according to Hammes.

British occupying forces in Malaysia, for example, only began gaining control over the insurgency in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the two-year mark, he says.

Iraqi authorities are using unconventional tactics as well. One of the most effective efforts so far on that front has turned out to be insurgent TV.

Interviews with captured insurgents are televised every night at 9 p.m. on state television and has become wildly popular since beginning about three months ago. Prisoners, often with visible bruises and cuts, sit behind a table and confess the gruesome details of their crimes. An anonymous offscreen military or police commander harangues them and lectures them about what jihad really means. One has even taken to reciting patriotic poetry he wrote himself.

Aibi says the show has made people more willing to report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods and help turn some against the insurgency.

"There is a huge difference because the people know who those guys really are. Before it was kind of a mystery. It also helps the ones that are close minded to rethink," he says.

The insurgents counter, however, with their own campaign of large, spectacular attacks. An insurgency doesn't expect to militarily defeat its larger, better-equipped foe, but rather make it so politically costly that they are forced to withdraw. A massive attack like the one in Abu Ghraib or the car bomb that killed more than 100 people in Hilla in February are effective in spreading fear in Iraq and a sense abroad that things are out of control.

A decrease in attacks on US forces, while touted as a victory by US officials, doesn't mean the insurgents aren't still reaching their goals. It's a frustrating dynamic for US officials.

"People see a spectacular attack and they think everything is going badly but that's not the case," said Lieut. Colonel Steven Boylan, a spokesman for the military in Iraq.

Another measure of the strength of the insurgency is how safe is it to be a Westerner on the street. Foreign women try to disguise themselves in Muslim head scarves, and foreign men grow beards. Walking the street isn't safe unless one blends in completely and foreigners cannot travel outside of Baghdad.

Even as Aibi revels in telling stories of big arrests he has made and how ferociously his fellow soldiers fight insurgents, he has to carry his uniform in a bag when he leaves his house so no one will know who he works for. His mother begs him to quit his job every day, he says, because she is afraid of the insurgents.

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