What US has learned from Hussein

Though the captured dictator has largely been mum, papers found at his hideout reveal key details about guerrilla cells.

The capture of Saddam Hussein appears to have helped the US military make quick progress in rolling up parts of the Iraqi insurgency as a whole.

Since the disheveled former strongman was hauled from his hideout, US forces have nabbed what American officials describe as a contingent of resistance financiers. A major meeting of insurgent fighters was interrupted in progress. Documents found with Mr. Hussein have helped fill in knowledge gaps about the insurgency structure, say commanders.

The question now is whether these gains will be more than short-term. Experts say the Iraqi resistance is not so much a hierarchical organization vulnerable to penetration as an organic structure that not even its putative leaders may be able to control.

"People who think all that's left are a few dead-enders who are now going to run out of money are wrong," says Robert Baer, a former CIA operative with extensive Middle East experience.

Any information the US has gained probably has not come from Hussein himself.

By all accounts, he seems to be as defiant in captivity as he was in power. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council who met with him shortly after his arrest said he made aggressive jokes at their expense, and was hardly the haggard, disoriented person he seemed in initial pictures.

But documents found in his ragged compound seem to have yielded much more intelligence, according to statements from US commanders in the region.

In addition, circumstantial evidence, including boats pulled up on the shore of the nearby Tigris River, pointed at courier activity and some sort of rudimentary network of command and control.

"He was clearly the symbolic figure, and these networks reported to him," said Army Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

Troops under General Dempsey's command have captured three high-ranking former members of the Iraqi military who are believed to be paymasters of the insurgency, the general indicated, according to accounts of his interview.

And on Tuesday US troops crashed what appeared to be a meeting of insurgents run by a mid-level leader near Samarra, which has been a hotbed of anti-US feeling. Seventy-three people were arrested.

The emerging picture, say some experts, is of an organization where Hussein provided some sort of strategic oversight, perhaps just through exhortation. He may even have ordered some attacks.

In Washington this week, interim Iraqi health minister Khudair Abbas said he believes Hussein communicated with followers via code in his tape-recorded messages.

Overall, it appears that Hussein has inadvertently provided a window into the resistance that has allowed the US to negate at least part of it, says Robert Pfaltzgraff, an international relations expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

"The long-term implications ... are significant and on the positive side," says Mr. Pfaltzgraff.

Officials indicated that information gained from Hussein had allowed them to sketch out how the upper layers of the insurgency worked, particularly in regards to financial transactions.

Apparently they also now have a better idea of the size of the opposition. At one point 10 to 14 cells were operating in Baghdad, according to Dempsey. Six of those cells may since have been compromised.

But clearly the insurgency is decentralized enough so that one arrest - even that of its titular leader - would not compromise the whole operation.

"What we've done is chop the head off the monster, but it still has cells, organizational attributes that would allow it to continue," says Mr. Pfaltzgraff.

Any guess about the size of the insurgency is just that, a guess, say other experts. Previous estimates had put the number of cells, nationwide, at some 25, with 80 to 100 men each.

Furthermore, there is good evidence that at least some foreign fighters have joined the insurgent cell structure. How many is unknown.

"The past history of such wars is that whatever Saddam and the [former] regime may have planned ... the resulting mix of activists is simply too diverse to not mutate into a new political and military structure beyond the regime's control," writes Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony Cordesman in an analysis of the resistance strategy.

Staff writer Seth Stern contributed to this report from Boston.

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