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No more than 5,000 Iraqis fighting U.S., commander says

WASHINGTON—There are no more than 5,000 armed insurgents fighting U.S.-led troops in Iraq, but they're highly coordinated and well-armed, the commander of American forces in Iraq said Thursday.

"When you understand that they're organized in cellular structure, that they have a brutal and determined cadre, that they know how to operate covertly, they have access to a lot of money and a lot of ammunition, you'll understand how dangerous they are," said Army Gen. John Abizaid, who oversees all American forces in the Middle East as head of U.S. Central Command.

But Abizaid said during a teleconference from his Tampa, Fla., headquarters that the U.S.-led coalition would prevail in stabilizing Iraq.

"There is no military threat in Iraq that can drive us out," he said.

His was the most specific estimate offered by a U.S. official so far of the size of the force that American troops now confront in Iraq, and it came as U.S. officials express a new urgency about halting the growing opposition movement. More American troops were killed last week in Iraq than during any previous week since the United States launched its invasion. A new CIA assessment says many Iraqis now believe the United States might be defeated and are willing to join the opposition.

Abizaid's estimate of the Iraqi opposition's strength excluded noncombat supporters, such as couriers, spies, propagandists and other sympathizers. American military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have put the total strength of the resistance at some 50,000 armed and unarmed members.

Abizaid said officials still were trying to determine how the opposition was organized. "There is some level of coordination that's taking place at very high levels, although I'm not so sure I'd say that there's a national-level resistance leadership. Not yet. It could develop," he said.

But he vigorously disputed an assertion by one of his top commanders in Iraq, voiced in an interview with the Washington Post, that Saddam Hussein had planned the guerrilla war before he was driven from power.

"I think Saddam Hussein is one of the most incompetent military leaders in the history of the world," Abizaid said. "To give him any credit, to think that somehow or other he planned this, is absolutely beyond my comprehension."

He said U.S. troops must quickly press a new, intensified counterinsurgency campaign to eradicate the guerrilla-style ambushes and bombings that have been escalating against coalition forces in recent weeks. He called those attacks "terrible, yet effective."

"Clearly, I feel a sense of urgency," he said. "We must move decisively against the (former ruling) Baathist (party) cells that are operating against us."

Abizaid also acknowledged the risk that more aggressive tactics could boost anti-American ire and drive more people to side with the guerrillas.

"Clearly, we must have military operations that balance both the need to conduct very stringent and tough activities against the enemy and at the same time be compassionate and protective of the innocent people in the areas in which we operate," he said.

Those comments appeared to reflect warnings in the new CIA assessment, first reported late Tuesday by Knight Ridder, that popular support for the insurgents is growing and could be fueled further by more aggressive American tactics.

Abizaid said it was essential to accelerate the drafting of Iraqis into new, U.S.-created army, police, border and paramilitary forces so they could take more responsibility for security and U.S. troops could pull out of urban centers.

"People in Tampa wouldn't want to have American tanks in their streets any more than the people in Baghdad want to," he said. "And what we are moving towards is Iraqi policing of Iraqi cities, Americans on the outskirts, Americans moving in conjunction with Iraqis to deal with security problems beyond their control."


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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Abizaid