BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's new interim government faces the same central challenge today that the U.S.-led coalition authority did: how to stop the violence that has killed and wounded thousands since Saddam Hussein was toppled last year.
"Security is the No. 1 problem here," said Hajim al Hassani, the minister of industry and minerals. "Without solving this issue, we cannot do anything; we cannot progress economically, we cannot run (construction) projects."
As Iraqi security forces are beginning to get on their feet, the insurgency appears to be growing more sophisticated and deadly, suggesting a continuing challenge for the 140,000 U.S. troops in the country.
After some 15 months of trying, the U.S. military still doesn't know exactly who the enemy is, how big it is, where it is or how it's organized. Whoever the insurgents are, they appear to be increasingly capable, coordinated and bold, carrying out at least 27 car bombings so far this month. They've staged several bold battlefield-like assaults and have begun taking hostages at an increased rate.
Muwaffak al Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said Monday that he hoped more Iraqi control would mean better success against the guerrilla fighters.
"The U.S. and coalition forces were unqualified and lacked the experience ... so they were unable to fight the terrorists and be victorious," he said. "The Iraqis are more qualified to fight these terrorists inside Iraq."
Al Rubaie didn't make clear how that would happen. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi recently announced that he'd be rebuilding the Iraqi military and centralizing local agencies to get a better flow of information about attacks.
Iraqi leaders have floated the possibility of declaring martial law, although a senior American civilian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, discounted the idea last week, saying that human rights guarantees in the interim Iraqi constitution would make it difficult for Iraqi forces to detain citizens without specific judicial orders. Such operations, the official said, would be better left to the U.S. military.
The Iraqi security forces are still woefully underequipped. Every day, Iraqi police and civil defense corps personnel are seen without flak vests—in a country where most homes have AK-47 rifles.
Sadoun Dulame, the director of a Baghdad-based research and polling center, said he wasn't counting on the transfer of sovereignty to cure Iraq's ills.
"I see the concrete barriers increasing everywhere, and I know that our security is out of control. Iraq is out of control," he said.
A top American military official, who asked not to be identified, said there are about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and about 200,000 Iraqi security troops. At the very high end of most estimates, there are 10,000 insurgents.
So why can't 350,000 troops—using the most sophisticated weaponry in the world—quash 10,000 paramilitary fighters, some of them a ragtag collection of teenagers scampering around in tennis shoes shooting old AK-47s?
"The answer's very simple: We don't have the intelligence," the official said.
For example, the official said, military intelligence is still unsure whether suspected terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has one leg or two.
As American and Iraqi military personnel have been scrambling to gather more and better intelligence, many have started to worry that the insurgency, while taking a punishing number of casualties, is becoming tougher and better organized.
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Military officials think one group of insurgents is loyal to Saddam and his Baath Party. They follow traditional tactics, using rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s in hit-and-run assaults on convoys, police stations and political targets.
Another group includes foreign terrorists such as al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, whose followers have kidnapped and beheaded two hostages and are thought to be holding several more, including a U.S. Marine. Al-Zarqawi has taken responsibility for dozens of car bombings and promised to kill Iraq's new prime minister.
U.S. military commanders fear that although there are enormous differences between Saddam's mostly secular followers and Islamic extremists such as al-Zarqawi, the two are merging—or at least cooperating—because all of them want to drive the Americans and other foreigners out of Iraq.
"Maybe we're starting to see the groups converging," said the military official who was interviewed this week. "Could it be that they're calling each other up, sort of like two crime families? Could be."
The Shiite Muslim militia led by renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, although it has been quiet recently, is another potential problem, and although the Shiites have long been enemies of Saddam and Sunnis such as al-Zarqawi, some Shiites have come to the aid of Saddam loyalists in Fallujah and elsewhere.
There were a handful of incidents during the past week that officials say may indicate wider cooperation between Saddam diehards and foreign terrorists. In particular, the senior military official in Baghdad pointed to events in the town of Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
"This is one of those areas where we are starting to see a metamorphosis," the official said.
On Thursday, some 300 fighters stormed the city, filing down side streets in an attempt to isolate Iraqi security forces and take over key government buildings.
The same day, a series of car bombs in the northern city of Mosul killed at least 60 and wounded more than 200. There also were attacks on police stations in and around the western town of Ramadi.
The gunmen in Baqouba were a combination of men dressed in black with green headbands—the calling card of radical Islamic fighters—and others in plainclothes who better fit the description of Saddam loyalists, said 1st Lt. Mark Desautels, an intelligence officer with the 1st Infantry Division, which patrols the area. The men seemed to be following a precise battle plan, and worked to cover one another in a far more organized way than they had in most previous attacks, Desautels said.
Al-Zarqawi took credit for the attacks on an Internet posting that military officials said they thought was credible. Yet the style of fighting was a textbook example of what the military refers to as former regime elements, though on a larger scale.
The Saddam sympathizers and the foreigners "are opposite camps in terms of philosophy, but for now they have the `the enemy of our enemy is my friend' thing," Desautels said.
The fighters, he said, are getting tougher in what he called a "combat Darwinism."
"The majority of the people we've been fighting don't want to die," Desautels said, "but these hard-core fighters that are left are willing to stand up against us."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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