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Counterinsurgency takes center stage in Iraq

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2007



WASHINGTON

When Col. Ralph Baker commanded an Army brigade combat team responsible for a volatile area of Baghdad, he found that one of his most effective weapons was the handbill.

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That's right, handbills. Fliers. Paper. In the United States, they're generally toss-aways, ads for hair salons or Chinese food. In Iraq, they can be an important way to disseminate information.

In Baker's unit – the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division – every mounted patrol carried standard handbills at all times. They passed out polite ones that apologized for any inconvenience during routine house-to-house searches. They distributed condemnatory ones in affected neighborhoods after bomb explosions or other insurgent attacks.

The fliers helped drive a wedge between the insurgents and local residents, and they often resulted in intelligence that US units could act upon, wrote Colonel Baker in a recent review of counterinsurgency techniques issued by the Army's Combined Arms Center.

During his tour in Iraq, Baker ended up spending 70 percent of his time on information and intelligence operations. He spent much less time commanding actual fighting than he had anticipated.

"The reality I confronted was far different than I had actually prepared for over a lifetime of conventional training and experience," wrote Baker.

Counterinsurgency is the graduate level of war, according to an officer quoted in the Army's new manual on the subject. It requires flexibility as much as force. Its objective is the population's support, not territory.

And as the US military prepares to implement President Bush's new strategy for Iraq, commanders may face the equivalent of trying to obtain a doctorate in six months. As they work with Iraqi partners of uncertain reliability, their task is to calm the near anarchy in much of Baghdad – before popular support in the US erodes further and Congress begins to press for troop withdrawal harder than it already has.

Even some experts who support the general outline of the president's plan worry that the hour is too late for it to work. Mr. Bush's plan is "extremely demanding," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, at a recent seminar.

"The civilian dimension, the political, the economic, the social engineering aspects of it are huge," said Mr. Pollack.

The best-known aspect of the administration's new plan is probably its call for an increase of 21,500 US troops in Iraq, with most of those dedicated to Baghdad. Yet US officials have cautioned that "surge" is the wrong word to describe this increase, as it implies a sudden arrival. The increase will be phased in, with two brigades arriving relatively quickly, and three more waiting in the pipeline, in essence to see what happens.

"There will be no D-Day," said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at a press conference after Bush's Jan. 10 speech to the nation. "It won't look like the Gulf War."

Under the new plan, a US battalion of 400 to 600 personnel will be embedded with Iraqi government forces in each of nine military districts in Baghdad. Administration officials have insisted again and again that Iraqi forces will take the lead in actual fighting, with US troops providing support.

Given the past performance of Iraqi units, this is an assertion many US experts view with extreme skepticism.

"It is still US forces that will do almost all the hard fighting," wrote Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in his military analysis of the Bush plan. "This is likely to sharply increase US casualties, at least initially."

To hold areas newly cleared of Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias, US and Iraqi troops are likely to be spread among 30 or 40 miniforts, or joint security sites, within the nine Baghdad districts.

Past fighting has shown that living in such outposts can be a harrowing experience. Take Dec. 29, 2004, when Sunni insurgents mounted a concerted attack on a four-story building in Mosul. Dubbed Combat Outpost Tampa, the building was occupied by elements of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Division.

At about 2:30 that afternoon, a suicide bomber sped a dump truck loaded with propane tanks and 50 South African-made 155-mm artillery shells down a highway, straight at the building. The truck's tires were overinflated, to try to allow it to bounce over defensive barriers, according to an Army case study of the incident.

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