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Continued violence in Iraq complicating Pentagon's exit strategy

WASHINGTON—The terrorist attacks that have shaken Baghdad over the last few days threaten to undermine the Pentagon's strategy for extricating U.S. troops from Iraq, senior U.S. officials and independent experts said Monday.

The brazen and well-coordinated strikes, they said, could prevent an accelerated handover of security duties from American to Iraqi forces and the creation of a new Iraqi government.

"What it means is that we're stuck," said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The strikes, the worst since the Iraqi capital fell to U.S. troops in April, included the suicide bombings on Monday of three Iraqi police stations and the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a rocket attack Sunday on the heavily fortified al Rasheed Hotel. The violence on Monday alone killed at least 35 people and wounded about 230 others, mostly Iraqis.

The officials and analysts said President Bush has few good options now other than staying the course in what has become an increasingly costly venture in Iraq and hoping that military pressure and civil reconstruction will eventually snuff out armed resistance.

Bush on Monday sought to portray the attacks as acts of desperation by insurgents waging a losing battle against the American-led reconstruction.

"There are terrorists in Iraq who are willing to kill anybody in order to stop our progress. The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react," Bush said at the White House, where he met with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, and Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, however, acknowledged "today was a difficult day. The last 24 hours has been very difficult."

He expressed concern that the unprecedented attack on the Red Cross could prompt humanitarian groups and private contractors to withdraw from Iraq. Other officials worry that the violence could deter other countries from sending troops or civilians to help in Iraq.

The attacks appeared to show a growing sophistication by the former Iraqi regime members and foreign fighters battling the U.S.-led occupation.

The rocketing of the al Rasheed targeted a heavily fortified building near the heart of a special U.S. security zone. The four car bombings took place in a 45-minute window and were aimed at the very Iraqi police force that American military planners hope can someday relieve them of security burdens.

"Initially, the resistance was scattered and uncoordinated," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. and former Special Forces captain. "Now we are seeing evidence of greater skill and more audacious operations."

"They're getting themselves organized," Jenkins said. "They're getting their act together."

In the days before the latest violence, U.S. officials had talked of accelerating the handover of political power from Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority to Iraqi officials and of letting Iraqis take a greater role in security.

As Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., put it in a televised interview Sunday: "There's only one way out of Iraq for America, and that is working with our allies to get the Iraqis in a position where they can defend themselves and govern themselves. And we're kidding ourselves if we don't have that as the primary focus."

But some Bush advisers, including Powell, are concerned that the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which has largely advisory powers, is not ready for a more substantive role.

The attacks Sunday and Monday have increased fears that Iraqi politicians and security forces could be overwhelmed by a precipitous U.S. departure.

"You've got to have sort of trustworthy partners there," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "There is a balance between speed and doing it sufficiently well."

Rather than withdraw, Donnelly said, U.S. military commanders should refocus their forces, and even increase them, into a classic counter-insurgency campaign. That would involve manpower-intensive sweeps of problem areas, using dismounted infantry and backed up by civilian "pacification" teams, he said.

Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appear to face a series of unappealing choices in dealing with the rise in anti-coalition attacks. For example, calling on a military already stretched thin to send more troops to Iraq could hurt morale, increase the number of U.S. casualties and fuel opposition to U.S. policy at home, abroad and in Iraq.

Using the overwhelming American advantage in firepower to deal devastating blows at the insurgents risks large-scale civilian damage and casualties that could alienate Iraqis who aren't opposed to the U.S. presence.

"Overreacting creates as many problems as it solves," Donnelly said.

Robert J. McGuire, who served on a task force that recommended security improvements after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, said U.S. planners could improve security conditions by essentially isolating U.S. service personnel, humanitarian organizations, construction workers and other foreigners behind rigidly guarded compounds and away from the Iraqi population.

But that, they said, would effectively undercut their mission of rebuilding Iraqi society.

"The more you isolate yourself, the more you make it harder to do the other things you're trying to do," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

McGuire, a security consultant and former New York City police commissioner, said the attackers effectively have the upper hand because they can hide amid Iraq's social turmoil and virtually strike whenever they choose.

"We don't control the population, we don't control the borders. There are a large number of ammunition dumps and a large amount of ordnance in the country," he said.

"They don't have to win. If terrorists can be perceived on a daily basis of disrupting our actives and creating chaos, then there is a psychological aspect to this—a wear-you-out, water-torture sort of approach."


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