For Iraq's insurgents, what next?

Postelection Iraq leaves the militants facing a new dynamic - a population that has endorsed the political process.

No car bombs. No mass casualties. No devastating attack that could darken the shine of Iraq's election.

For months, insurgents had one goal: to keep Iraqis from going to the polls. Running their own campaign of targeting election officials and candidates, and promising death to all who took part, they cast election day as a test. But while the fear of attacks and reprisals kept some voters away - turnout in some Sunni strongholds was almost nil - the jubilation and defiance with which as many as 60 percent of Iraqis cast ballots sent a strong signal to the insurgency, analysts say.

"It's unclear what the insurgents will do from here - they are entering uncharted territory," says Sajjan Gohel, a terrorism expert who heads the Asia Pacific Foundation in London. "The fact is, they failed in their objective to stop people from voting."

While no one expects the violence to end, Iraqis say a new political dynamic is at play:

with government more firmly in Iraqi hands, future attacks may no longer be viewed as against American occupation, but against Iraqis themselves.

"The terrorists now know that they cannot win," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced Monday, noting how many Iraqis defied the threats and voted, turning the political tide against the insurgents.

"This vote was our answer [to insurgents]: We will resist you, we are not going to be intimidated by you, no matter how much you try, we will kick you," says an Iraqi doctor who asked not to be identified. The insurgents are "definitely" rethinking their strategy, he says. "I think the situation will change from now on. The vote will give some legitimacy to the new government."

But experts say it is premature to suggest that Iraq's insurgency - driven by extremists among the once-powerful Sunni minority, who are determined to force out the US - is beginning to lose. Three US troops were killed south of Baghdad Monday while conducting security operations.

"One day, election day, [US and Iraqi forces] made it very difficult to target," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University of London. "We still have the same Iraq today as we did on Saturday, with a big security vacuum."

"Statistically, the US won on the day - it highlights the fact that in locking down the country, the US military can do it with 150,000 troops," says Mr. Dodge. "The political message [from the vote] - if there is a popular affirmation of the next government - sends a much more important message to insurgents."

After the Fallujah offensive last November, and especially in recent weeks, experts say, US military intelligence has improved, leading to the arrest of several top aides to insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as well as of a key car bomb builder.

"We have been doing a very significant amount of offensive operations in the last two months - we've definitely taken away some of [their] capabilities," says US Army Col. Mike Murray. He says recent explosions have involved "lower quality" car bombs and attacks with fewer explosives, which are taking less of a toll than months past.

"They are just not having the same lethal effect," says Colonel Murray, from Kenton, Ohio. On election day, he noted that many insurgent mortars were inaccurate - one targeted polling station in Baghdad's Sadr City slum was up and running within 10 minutes, despite the death of one person. At the site of one suicide blast, Iraqis were voting within an hour. "[Insurgents] understand as much as we do the importance of this day," says Murray.

The recent offensives include more than 1,000 cordon-and-search operations, and some 400 specific attacks to net insurgents, which yielded the capture or death of 30 to 50 percent of a target list of names, according to The New York Times. "No organization can operate with those kinds of losses," said a US commander quoted by the newspaper.

But the events following a rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, which killed two people the night before the election, may point more toward the kind of success that hurts insurgent capabilities.

The flash of the rocket launch was detected by a US Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV, which watched through its surveillance camera as a group of insurgents fled and entered a house, according to a Western diplomat. Shortly thereafter, US troops swooped on the house, arresting seven - presumably including the one with the expertise to so accurately fire the rocket.

"If the US is able to lift some of those people, that would be interesting and an important breakthrough," says Mr. Dodge.

Still, he warns that the insurgency itself is made up of 60 different, mostly autonomous, groups, and that Mr. Zarqawi - with just 200 loyalists, who have claimed some of the worst atrocities in Iraq in the past year - is a "fringe player."

"Zarqawi is not the insurgency," says Dodge. "If Zarqawi disappeared tomorrow, the insurgency would probably get stronger."

Removing such an extreme element from the insurgent equation could in fact strengthen the mainstream anti-American insurgents, whose attitude about ending US occupation is widely held.

"The problem is that for every [insurgent] captured or killed, five are coming along the assembly line," Mr. Gohel suggests. "They are different groups, but bounded by the common ideology of forcing the Americans out. They won't give up. They will come back again [before the new government is announced], and try to do as much damage as possible."

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