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Resistance, retaliation by Iraqis resembles guerilla warfare

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Two months after President Bush declared major combat over in Iraq, stealthy enemies are still killing and wounding American and allied soldiers—five killed and 22 wounded in May, 20 killed and 39 wounded in June.

In response, American commanders have unleashed repeated military raids—Operation Peninsula north of Baghdad, Operation Desert Scorpion west of Baghdad and Operation Sidewinder in western and central Iraq—to root out those pockets of resistance. The raids have netted hundreds of arrests but have also created new waves of anger and hostility among the Iraqi people.

The pattern of attack and counterattack looks like classic guerrilla warfare, in which a weaker foe attacks in the place of his choosing, then melts into the population. The harder an occupying force pounds back, the more it alienates the populace, creating communities that accept, if not actively support, armed resistance.

The Americans learned it the hard way in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan, the British in Northern Ireland and now, it seems, the same scenario may be unfolding in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told senators last week that Iraq is not, in fact, experiencing guerrilla warfare. "I don't know that I would use that word," he said.

But military officials in Iraq have for weeks described an opponent (or opponents) that doesn't appear part of a central command structure, isn't well organized and tends to attack in ambush-style operations. The opponent promotes Iraqis' discontent by spreading rumors and disrupting basic services through sabotaging power lines and, possibly, assassinating a Baghdad electricity official.

Asked what all those pieces add up to, Maj. Sean Gibson, a top Army spokesman in Baghdad, said, "I know where you're going here. I studied guerrilla warfare too."

Death for soldiers in June came from a bewildering number of directions. One soldier was hit in a rocket-propelled grenade attack at a trash pickup center. One was shot by a sniper while on patrol. A soldier investigating a carjacking was ambushed. A group of people at a checkpoint said they needed help with a sick person, then jumped out of the car and shot a soldier to death.

Coalition officials blamed the deaths on holdovers from Saddam Hussein's Baath party. They also have mentioned the possibility of fighters coming from Iran or Syria to destabilize American efforts in Iraq. From time to time, there is word of "al-Qaida sympathizers" or "terrorist groups."

But there has been little public airing of evidence. The closest thing to confirmation was an attack on a training camp in Rawah, close to the Syrian border to the west. At the battle scene afterward, among the body parts and trench-line graves, were empty cans of Russian AK-47 ammunition, mangled rifle parts and empty rocket-propelled grenade crates. Some locals said the camp included Syrians who were training to fight the Americans.

"There are all sorts of cells operating in the country," said Lt. Gen. Richard Sanchez, the top general in Iraq. Who, exactly, is in those cells? he asked. "There's a whole lot of names that are out there."

Gibson also was vague about the identity of what he called "terrorist organizations, or wanna-be terrorist organizations, I don't have any names. They have their own purposes, their own agendas."

While coalition officials shy away from specifics, many Iraqis say the anti-coalition violence isn't the result of Baathists or organized terrorist groups, but ordinary citizens who are angry about what they see as an American occupation. Iraqis say the attacks are due to a rage born of the lack of electricity and water, along with coalition soldiers searching Iraqi homes and occasionally shooting innocent civilians.

Of course, the fact that ordinary civilians are enraged doesn't mean there isn't also a resistance with an agenda fanning discontent.

There's plenty of evidence that the behavior of U.S. troops is creating its own problems:

_ No town has gotten more attention for ambushing American troops than Fallujah, about an hour west of Baghdad. The attacks came after an April demonstration in which more than a dozen Iraqis were killed by U.S. soldiers.

"People are still very upset. The shootings are revenge," said Taha Alwani, the town's mayor, who was installed with the blessings of U.S. troops. "That's why I told the Americans not to search any houses without talking to me."

_In Majar al Kabir, where six British soldiers were killed and eight wounded, public resentment about a round of home searches turned into a mob throwing rocks at troops. When the situation got out of hand, witnesses said, the British opened fire and the crowd responded in kind.

_In Balad, where two American soldiers disappeared with their Humvee, and then turned up dead, locals harbor resentment over what they say was an overreaction to a rocket-propelled grenade attack June 13 on a U.S. tank convoy. In the aftermath of the attack, U.S. soldiers killed seven people, including five who residents said weren't connected to the violence. Local tribal customs have long dictated that a killing must be avenged either with payment or another death.

"(The Americans) should understand that Saddam is gone and the Baathists are not as strong as they think," said Sheik Fahran al Sadeed, who leads a tribe of thousands in southern Iraq. The shootings come "because the Americans aren't fixing things, and if they are not careful it will be Iraq united fighting against the Americans."

U.S. military officials say they're aware of the problem. "I know there's a sense that the more combat operations we conduct, the more we piss them off, the more riled up they get," said Capt. John Morgan, a spokesman for the Army's V Corps. Still, says Morgan, the coalition can't stop looking for weapons and possible militia leaders.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ GUERRILLA