Insurgents' goal: damage, but also publicity
Attacks on US troops in Iraq reflect a classic guerrilla strategy: build momentum by getting media attention.
WASHINGTON — It has become part of the lore of the war. Using a donkey cart to camouflage rockets, insurgents in Baghdad recently fired on two international hotels and the Iraqi Oil Ministry.
The attacks inflicted only minor damage - by most accounts an utter failure. Some US officials even scoffed at the primitive tactics as proof of an increasingly desperate resistance.
But on another level, the donkey- delivered barrage got the attackers what they wanted: Before long the strikes led news updates around the world. What they lacked in impressive physical damage, they made up for in global impact.
"Terrorists everywhere know that these kinds of wars are in part won and lost on the front pages and lead stories of nightly news shows," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. "Saddam Hussein himself said he draws the lesson from Vietnam and subsequent invasions that America will not tolerate seeing their soldiers come home in body bags."
The quick spread of the incident globally demonstrates how the psychological impact of such operations is at least as important to the resistance as the infliction of physical damage and mayhem. With 150,000 US and allied troops in Iraq, the insurgents know they can't win this war through sheer firepower.
At the same time, the Iraqi resistance, which may have been unaware of the global reach of the media in the tightly controlled society of Sadam Hussein, is becoming more sophisticated about how the press works. Since the fall of Mr. Hussein, whole streets of Baghdad have been converted to markets for satellite dishes and other technology that has quickly exposed Iraqis to the impact of global coverage.
It is not clear that Hussein is personally leading the resistance movement. But it is well-known that he planned the insurgency before the US invasion and that he is a master at manipulating the press.
In late 1998, for instance, he let a group of Western journalists - previously banned - into the country just before the US and Britain bombed Iraq in retaliation for its non-compliance with UN weapons inspectors. Their presence ensured that the images of the destruction would be beamed around the world. Moreover, he has continued to release video and audio tapes at propitious moments to incite Iraqi followers and Arab sympathizers against the "Great Infidel."
Emboldening the insurgents no doubt, too, is the growing awareness of the American casualty count. The death toll of US forces and allies continues to rise, though at a slower rate than in November. On Monday, a US soldier guarding a gas station in the northern city of Mosul was shot dead when fired on by men in a passing car. He was the 193rd to die from hostile action since President Bush declared an end of major hostilities on May 1.
While some assaults and ambushes have diminished in number since the US launched Operation Iron Hammer last month, the number of larger-scale attacks have been growing. More than 40 American troops and several Iraqi civilians were injured Tuesday, for instance, when a suicide bomber blew up a car at the gates of a military barracks in Talafar, 30 miles west of Mosul.
MOST of the larger attacks have occurred on Saturday or Sunday, which leads experts to two other conclusions. One is that, either through serendipity or good planning, the weekend hits seem to generate prolonged coverage. Often, a strike that occurs on Sunday will set the tone for the media coverage throughout the week.
Second is that the resistance fighters are following a classic Mao-style insurgency - trying to build mass support, in part through propaganda.
"The well-established doctrine says you are to start at the grass-roots level and work your way up," says Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Once you have established a base of support among the population, you go to larger and larger operations."
In the largest urban attack of the war, a group of Iraqis laid siege in November to more than 100 US soldiers in Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and armored Humvees.
The troops were protecting a Fijian convoy delivering millions of new Iraqi dinars to banks in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad. US troops claim to have killed 54 Iraqis, but townspeople say only eight bodies were recovered.
THE assault on the cash convoy suggests, as US officials in Iraq have been claiming for some time, that the insurgents may be getting low on money to finance their operations.
In a raid in Samarra over the weekend, American soldiers seized $2 million they discovered while hunting down a man thought to be underwriting attacks on Americans.
Mr. Lang says that when the final story of the Samarra battle is told, it will be significant. The Iraqis will either be reenergized by their ability to attack on this level, or they may be discouraged if as many died as US forces say, and retrench.