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Insurgents' ranks quickly replenished, expert says

WASHINGTON—U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed more than 1,300 insurgents in Iraq and detained 9,000 suspected fighters since last January's election for an interim government, but the estimated size of the insurgency remains the same, according to American military officials.

The U.S. military releases only occasional tallies of enemy deaths and has a policy of not releasing a total. Even so, the available numbers, compiled from news releases since January, and the official estimate of overall insurgent numbers suggest that the forces fighting American soldiers in Iraq have been able to find enough recruits to replace those who've been killed or detained.

Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, who once estimated insurgent strength at 5,000, put the number at 20,000 in early October, about the same as it was a year ago.

Insurgents' ranks are being replenished as quickly as they are depleted, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington, and the co-author of its Iraq Index, which tracks statistics in key areas such as security and economics.

"(It's) closer to stalemate militarily than anything else, as best I can tell," he said.

Brookings' Iraq Index estimates that 50,000 insurgents have been killed or captured since the insurgency began after the invasion in 2003.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad said 376 foreign fighters had been captured and about 400 had been killed since the January election. More than 100 of those were "known leaders" of the group al-Qaida in Iraq, and six were "trusted agents" of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a coalition spokesman, said last month.

Sixty percent of the foreign fighters captured were from Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, said Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, a military spokesman in Baghdad.

While American military officials contend that foreign fighters make up only a small percentage of the insurgents in Iraq, they consider them the most dangerous element. Zarqawi is a Jordanian, and foreigners are thought to make up an important part of his network.

Most of the suicide bombers who've attacked in Iraq in recent months are thought to have been foreigners, and since last spring U.S. and Iraqi counterinsurgency efforts increasingly have targeted villages and towns that are thought to be their havens in the Euphrates River valley and along the Syrian border.

On May 29, Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CBS that American and Iraqi forces had killed about 250 members of Zarqawi's network and detained 400, "some of them his closest lieutenants."

In September, a U.S. military officer in northern Iraq claimed that 80 percent of al-Qaida's network there had been "devastated" in American-led offensives since January. Of the 550 terrorists killed in the region, an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent were foreign fighters, said Col. Robert B. Brown, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said these efforts appeared to indicate that the coalition's intelligence "does seem to be improving, depending on the area."

"There does seem to be an improvement in coalition intelligence and targeting," Cordesman said. "It is not necessarily destroying these networks, but it is certainly keeping them from organizing and having anything like the structure they'd have if you didn't attack them."

But how effective those operations will be in the long run is an open question.

"In some areas, it's just a matter of getting rid of the leaders, and these generally seem to be replaceable," Cordesman said. "There's no way to make a qualitative judgment about how important a given leader was."

U.S. officials say the insurgents are on the defensive.

"Increasingly, the pressure being put on the terrorists and the insurgents is working," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the German magazine Der Spiegel in its Oct. 31 edition.

Still, neither U.S. troop strength nor the estimated size of the insurgency has changed much in favor of the coalition. The number of American troops in Iraq, which dropped to as low as 115,000 in early 2004, is back up to 154,000, roughly the same amount as there were at the end of the 2003 invasion. The number is expected to drop to about 138,000 after the December elections, military officials said.

More than 200,000 Iraqi military and police forces have been trained, but most can't operate without significant U.S. help, and the violence continues to spiral.

U.S. deaths in Iraq had reached 2,035 by Friday, according to Pentagon figures. More than 15,470 soldiers have been wounded. Ninety-six soldiers died in Iraq during October, making it the deadliest month for U.S. forces since January and the fourth-deadliest month of the war.

The number of multiple-fatality bombings has been increasing, reaching a record of 46 in September, according to the Brookings Iraq Index.

The monthly number of American deaths from roadside bombs has been rising since the start of the war. The number hit 57 in October, another grisly record, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that compiles data on U.S. and allied troops who've been killed.

A Pentagon report to Congress last month said that aside from a slight drop from February to August, attacks on American soldiers had averaged more than 500 a week since June 2004, and reached nearly 600 a week from August to mid-September 2005, when the Pentagon's data end.

During the last week of October there were 569 attacks on coalition troops, including 136 that produced casualties, Lynch said Thursday. About 40 percent of those attacks were by insurgents using roadside bombs.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.