Guerrilla War in Iraq

As President Bush noted in his radio speech Saturday, the US has its hands full trying to rebuild Iraq. The efforts of L. Paul Bremer as the chief US civilian administrator have brought more order to the coalition occupation and the delivery of services. But Mr. Bremer has also created uncertainty about when Iraqis will be allowed to shoulder some of the responsibility of government. He needs to address that question publicly, and soon.

The attacks on American troops are disturbing, but a pattern appears if one considers: (1) the rapid collapse of Iraqi defenses in Baghdad at the war's end, with thousands of regime figures and supporters vanishing; and (2) the location of most of the attacks on US soldiers in the Sunni Muslim region west and north of Baghdad, inhabited by the core supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.

It appears that these regime remnants, reportedly well financed and aided by foreign fighters, are organizing guerrilla warfare against US troops. This poses a Vietnam-type problem for the US military: It must root out the guerrillas from the local population without alienating that population in the process.

Press reports indicate the US military is trying hard not to antagonize the Sunni Muslim population, but with mixed results. Clearly it is hampered by Iraqi distrust and impatience with the slow pace of restoring basic services - many of which have not functioned normally for years.

US success against the guerrillas will depend in part on how well they are organized and the degree of command and control that former regime elements exercise. If the groups are just fragmented units not in contact with each other - as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld maintains - the task will be easier. If they can coordinate their attacks, they will be much harder to root out.

That's one reason the capture last week of Hussein's chief aide, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, is so significant. Recovered with him were millions of dollars possibly meant to finance resistance. US raids also netted some 50 former members of the Special Republican Guard and security forces. Thus US forces may have struck a solid blow against a remaining Baathist organization.

If the Baathists are well organized, the question of what happened to Hussein and his two sons becomes even more crucial. Press reports say Mr. Mahmud claims they are still alive, but his credibility is uncertain.

Meanwhile, observers believe that at least some attacks on Americans come from former members of the Iraqi military simply disgruntled at being put out of work and not getting paid. The US is rightly reviewing its policy of not paying the ex-soldiers and is trying to recruit some of them to serve in the new police force.

That's a move in the right direction, but US officials must do more to identify competent Iraqis and involve them in decisionmaking. The sooner Iraqis become the public face of government, the sooner at least some of the resentment that fuels guerrilla warfare will dissipate.

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