An aggressive US military campaign to stamp out organized resistance to its occupation of Iraq is being coupled with strenuous efforts to avoid its most crucial risk: inciting backlash among ordinary Iraqis.
The offensive - including a series of coordinated US raids west and north of Baghdad involving thousands of American troops over the past week - amounts to a major new phase in the battle to stabilize and disarm the war-torn nation of 24 million people.
In fact, the unfolding crackdown appears to be a miniwar directed at resistance forces operating in areas that were left relatively untouched in the lightning overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. US strikes in the past week have reportedly killed scores of suspected enemies and five civilians. US troop deaths have also escalated this month due to hostile fire, often in surprise attacks.
As the heavy US incursions heighten the possibility of Iraqi civilian casualties and popular opposition, commanders are adopting "carrot and stick" tactics, such as making massive deliveries of food, toys, and medical supplies within hours of military raids.
The progress of the ongoing operations is vital in determining whether Washington can reduce the size of the 145,000-strong US occupation force in Iraq, US commanders say. Already, the indications are it will be months before any substantial drawdown of US ground troops will be possible.
The operations are complicated, moreover, by what senior US civilian and military officials admit has so far been sketchy intelligence on the composition and organization of the armed elements mounting almost daily attacks on US forces.
The consensus is that the chief resistance comes from surviving remnants of Mr. Hussein's Sunni-dominated political, military, and security establishment - rather than newly formed opposition. "They may be colleagues from the Baath movement, they could be several people from the Fedayeen Saddam or from the Republican guards," said L. Paul Bremer, director of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
Still, Ambassador Bremer says US forces are also on guard against a possible threat from Islamic extremists infiltrating Iraq from neighboring countries. A lethal strike Thursday near the northwestern Iraqi town of Rawah killed nearly 70 people in what US officials called a "terrorist training camp" where Arab fighters were reportedly aiding attacks on US forces. Later, though, US commanders said they were uncertain of the identity of the "bad guys" in the camp.
"Who the bad guys are will be determined as we exploit the site. We struck it very lethally, and we're exploiting whatever intelligence value we can get from that site for future operations," said Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of US and coalition ground forces in Iraq.
Debate also exists over the degree of coordination among anti-American forces, whose strikes against US troops have escalated in recent weeks.
Of the nearly 50 US troops who died in Iraq since May 1, some 13 have died in hostile incidents, with that number rising sharply this month. Although the Iraqi forces may have financial and communications links between cities, US officials say they are primarily organized on a local and regional basis - rather than nationally.
"We do not at the moment see evidence of central command and control of these groups. I certainly wouldn't exclude it, but we don't have the evidence yet," Mr. Bremer told reporters last week.
The latest US air and ground offensives, planned for weeks, involve a coordinated push northward and westward from Baghdad by troops from the battle-hardened Third Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division, in addition to the Fourth Infantry Division and other units.
The operations, the largest since the US declared the end of major combat May 1, have aimed to draw out and destroy suspected insurgents as well as round up weapons. They have unfolded mainly in a triangle stretching from Baghdad west to Fallujah, north to Balad, and northwest toward the Syrian border.
A raid in Fallujah early Sunday by more than 1,000 US soldiers from the Second Brigade of the Third Infantry Division reportedly led to the capture of a handful of suspected militants and the seizure of unauthorized weapons. It took place only hours after an amnesty expired under which Iraqis were to turn in all illegal weapons. The raid was followed rapidly by a soldiers' delivery of truckloads of toys, free fuel, and thousands of meals in an effort to improve strained relations between US forces and Fallujah residents.
Whether such ongoing operations succeed in curbing armed resistance, they could play a crucial role in determining the number of US ground troops required in Iraq, senior US officials say. There are about 12,000 coalition troops and 145,000 US troops in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the US coalition is currently increasing the number of ground troops.