BAGHDAD, Iraq—Fighting in the towns west of Baghdad—the sites of the fiercest attacks on American soldiers in recent months—is likely to intensify in the weeks ahead, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said this week in an exclusive interview with Knight Ridder.
But he said coalition forces were winning the war, and that most of the Iraqi people stood behind them.
Attacks on American soldiers now are averaging around 16 a day, according to U.S. intelligence reports. There were more than 500 incidents last month. There have been four major terrorist car bombings since August, and at least two smaller suicide bombings. Assassinations and attempted killings of American-backed Iraqi officials have been increasing. But Sanchez said there were no indications that resistance against U.S. forces was spreading.
"At this point, I don't think I've got any indication that it is beginning to take hold with the populace," he said. "On the contrary, we're getting more and more help from the local population to weed out some of these elements that are disrupting their lives and their neighborhoods."
Sanchez said the Army's 82nd Airborne Division was stepping up operations to stamp out resistance by loyalists of Saddam Hussein's former regime, Islamic extremists and foreign terrorists who have found haven near the towns of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, and Ramadi, 60 miles west of the capital.
"We will have all of those assets dedicated to rooting out all of those anti-coalition elements that are operating out there," Sanchez said. "The other piece is that we are convinced this area is part of the rat line that harbors and supports some of the foreign fighters that are coming in, so it's probably going to get a little uglier out there before it gets better."
The three-star general called the move part of the continuing "aggressive posture" by American forces to hunt down and eliminate the militants who have killed 80 U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 720 since President Bush declared major combat operations over nearly five months ago. Since the war began in March, 305 U.S. service members have died in Iraq and more than 1,275 have been wounded.
Fallujah and Ramadi lie in the heart of the deeply conservative tribal area known as the Sunni Triangle, where support for the former dictator remains strong and where there have been violent clashes between U.S. soldiers and residents.
In the last two weeks, American soldiers have mistakenly clashed with Iraqi police in Fallujah, killing nine officers, and a number of soldiers have been killed and wounded by ambushes there and in nearby towns. In the latest incident, 82nd Airborne soldiers called in an airstrike on a farmhouse Tuesday after they came under fire by guerrillas who ran inside. Three Iraqis reportedly were killed and three others wounded.
Sanchez expects the attacks and casualties to continue as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq. "I believe that is primarily going to be engendered by these fundamentalist elements here," he said. "There are terrorists who will come here and try to kill American soldiers."
However, he dismissed notions that American troops are embroiled in guerrilla war.
"I call it a low-intensity conflict," he said. "There are components of a guerrilla war that are clearly missing from this environment. I still firmly believe that there is no overwhelming popular support. There's no real ideological alternative for the people here. The only alternative is Saddam Hussein, and they don't want Saddam Hussein to come back."
Sanchez acknowledged that the assaults on U.S. soldiers are growing more sophisticated, "which indicates to me that there's a little bit better-trained element out there than the young Iraqi who's out of work and picks up an AK-47 and sprays a few rounds at us and runs." The increasing sophistication means "that we're getting down to the hard-core elements," who are conducting attacks out of desperation, he said, adding that support for the U.S.-led coalition remains strong among the Iraqi people.
"Every single day, we get tips from the people in just about every single sector in which we operate," he said. "And that leads us to weapons caches or anti-coalition elements, as we take down the cells and the bomb makers. This is going on every single day."
Though there have been comparisons back home to the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago, Sanchez was adamant that American troops aren't stuck in a similar quagmire in Iraq.
"When you hear `quagmire,' it implies that you're sitting still, that you're not moving, that you're not making any progress, and that is nowhere near the case in this country," he said. "Across the board, there is tremendous progress being made. Is it taking time? It is taking time. But you can't fix the problems that Saddam imposed in this country over a period of 35 years in a matter of four months."
Sanchez said intense media focus on negative stories, such as the terrorist bombings and attacks on U.S. troops, had distorted the true picture. Most of the country remains stable, the attacks have been confined mostly to the Sunni Muslim areas, and significant progress has been made on the political, economic and security fronts.
"(The media) is not being fair to the American public in telling them about what great work their sons and daughters are doing over here," he said. "There's about 10 times more good news here in this country than there is bad news on a daily basis. (But) the great news of standing up (opening) a factory, or a village having water for the first time or a bridge being rebuilt and opened, I mean, that just doesn't flash on the news, but yet that goes on every single day."
Sanchez pointed out that U.S. troops and coalition authorities are working to turn over security matters to Iraqi forces as soon as possible.
The first 800-man battalion of the new Iraqi army will graduate Oct. 4, and plans are being considered to expedite training for the rest of the force, projected at 40,000 and originally slated for full deployment within two years. The new timetable would speed up that process by a year. American forces also are training police officers and a civil defense force that will assist U.S. troops in their home areas.
When asked if American troops are winning or losing the war in Iraq, Sanchez responded bluntly: "There is absolutely no question that we're winning."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ricardo Sanchez