Monday, Oct. 20, 2003


Enemy attacks in Iraq are growing more sophisticated and better organized. Here's why that is happening and what U.S. troops are doing to fight the threat


On Oct. 8 TIME's Brian Bennett got the message he had been awaiting from an intermediary: if he wished to interview members of an Iraqi resistance group, he should show up at a specified address in Baghdad the following day at 8 a.m. Bennett arrived at the appointed hour and got into a car that sped west out of the capital. Halfway between Fallujah and Ramadi, he was blindfolded, and the car turned off the highway. After 10 minutes it stopped. His guide explained that they were placing wooden planks over a canal. They drove over the water and into a grove of baby pomegranate trees.

Bennett took off his blindfold and met two men who called themselves Abu Omar and Abu Mohammed. Their faces covered by red-and-white checkered scarves, they agreed to discuss their deadly vocation. They described how they form teams of four to work with antitank mines looted from Iraqi-army munition sites or bought from middlemen who steal them from unguarded dumps. They daisy-chain three or four together to spread out explosive power and set them along roads traveled by U.S. convoys. When the lead vehicle passes a marker, one of the men sets off the mines with a crank detonator connected to them by wires; the others provide covering fire. Lately they have begun staging more elaborate, two-phase attacks that require up to a dozen men. In these missions, after mines are set off under convoys, hidden fighters launch rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at the stopped vehicles and spray them with machine-gun fire.

Judging from the eyes peeking through his scarf, Abu Omar appeared to be in his 20s. He said he had just got a degree in history. Abu Mohammed had been a contractor before the war and served for six years in an artillery unit of the Iraqi army. They claimed they had not supported Saddam Hussein when he was in power; the dictator had not treated the people from their area well. But now, they said, they were fighting for him because he represents an independent Iraq. They said their group had no name, and although they believed there were foreign fighters in Iraq, their 12-man cell was made up entirely of Iraqis. They had not met other resisters but said their commander, whom they did not name, was in touch with more anti-American groups.

Three days later a car driven by a suicide bomber set off a lethal explosion at the Baghdad Hotel. Bennett received a message from the men he had met, claiming a role in the operation. It is impossible to confirm that; no one can say for sure who was responsible for that attack - or for most of the assaults plaguing the country.

President Bush says the media are overplaying the violence in Iraq. Yet the past two weeks' casualties would make anyone take notice. A stranger in the garb of a Shi'ite cleric rang the doorbell at the Baghdad home of a Spanish diplomat involved in intelligence gathering. As the diplomat fled, the stranger's armed accomplices gunned him down. A white Oldsmobile careered into a Baghdad police compound and exploded, killing eight Iraqis and wounding 40. A Toyota Corolla packed with explosives scooted around 12ft.-high concrete barriers guarding the Baghdad Hotel, where some members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council stay, and detonated, killing six Iraqi guards and injuring 40 more. A suicide car bomber aiming for Turkey's embassy in Baghdad took the life of an Iraqi bystander.

While American casualties fluctuate month to month, they're spiking again. On Oct. 6 two U.S. soldiers patrolling outside Baghdad died when a roadside bomb blasted their convoy, and another perished west of the city when his unit was hit. Three days later a G.I. lost his life to an RPG, and two others were killed in Baghdad's turbulent Sadr City when a false cry for help lured their squad into an ambush. Over the next four days, three G.I.s died in separate combat incidents. On Friday three U.S. soldiers and 10 Iraqis died in a fire fight at the Karbala headquarters of a Shi'ite cleric, and another American fell in Baghdad.

Bush is right, of course, to say the killings aren't the only news from Iraq. The U.S. has been making headway in restoring the country to normality. Power production recently surpassed the prewar average, more than 1,500 schools have been rehabilitated, and the din of construction fills the capital. Large swaths of the countryside are calm and cooperative. And the Administration won a diplomatic showdown with the U.N. Security Council last week when the council unanimously endorsed the U.S. plan for reconstructing Iraq - though the victory felt somewhat hollow when council members immediately declared they would not contribute men or money to the effort.

The fact is, the realities coexist: this is a country working to move on amid a shooting war that will not end. For soldiers and citizens alike, there are still many ways to die in Iraq, and the coroners who tidy away the dead have seen them all. Rifle fire. Roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, as the U.S. military calls them. RPGs. Mortar fire. Suicide car bombs. Some days it feels as if Iraqis opposing the U.S. presence are throwing everything they can at the young soldiers and the locals helping them rebuild the country. Some weeks are better than others, but the drumbeat of attacks persists, and the drip-drip of casualties isn't letting up. Despite the best efforts of field commanders, the U.S.-led coalition is still struggling to contain the threat. And the latest spasm of attacks has only deepened unease that the chaos of the early postwar days may be evolving into a more deliberate resistance, as scattershot hostility hardens into something more organized and sophisticated.

How Bad Is It?

Statistics are pliable things. Some people contend that the 338 American soldiers who have died in Iraq since the war began--215 in combat, 123 from noncombat causes - amount to a hearteningly low toll out of the 130,000-strong U.S. force. But others, including many of the troops, are dismayed that 199 of those deaths--101 combat, 98 noncombat - have come since Bush's May 1 declaration that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." Even though some military officers contend that G.I.s are dying at a slower rate, soldiers say the unpredictability and ever-changing face of the enemy make life in Iraq as dangerous as ever. "Every time you do a knock and search, it's a combat operation," says Colonel Christopher Pease, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade. "You don't know where or when you're going to be shot at."

U.S. officials in Iraq say their troops are coming under attack an average of 20 times a day. Most are small-bore, hit-and-run sallies that fail to exact any injuries. Yet seven of the soldiers killed last week were hit by small-arms fire, RPGs or mines. The U.S. has not been able to prevent its foes from getting access to explosives and weaponry. Arms caches can still be found throughout the country, largely unguarded by coalition forces. U.S. officials say they have discovered 105 major military arms dumps and scores of smaller ones storing perhaps 1 million tons of armaments. Even with 6,000 troops dedicated to guarding some of the biggest sites, most of the weaponry is under surveillance only by aerial or electronic means.

One sign that the resistance is hardening: the assaults, says a senior military official, "are increasing in sophistication." He cites more frequent use of improvised explosive devices as well as standoff weapons like mortars. "They've been getting more and more organized," says Sergeant Joseph Teague of the 101st Airborne, whose platoon patrols the town of Ba'aj, southwest of Mosul. Teague has been ambushed twice in the past two weeks. "In the last two attacks," he says, "they've shot at us from all sides."

As U.S. forces take defensive steps to minimize their casualties, the focus of the attacks is shifting to soft targets like embassies, police stations, government buildings. As a result, more and more of the dead are Iraqis, although no one seems to be keeping an official tally. An independent group called Iraq Body Count, a team of researchers tracking civilian deaths, estimates that at least 1,500 Iraqis died violently in Baghdad alone from April 14 through Aug. 31. That works out to more than 10 Iraqi fatalities for every coalition death during the same period. The effect has been to renew anxieties among ordinary citizens, especially in the Iraqi capital, and to kindle worries that anti-American insurgents are broadening their targets to include anyone seen as collaborating with the U.S.

The most damaging assaults against these soft targets are suicide attacks, and they are on the rise. Since early August, nine car bombs, including three in the past week, have taken the lives of more than 130 Iraqis and others cooperating with the occupation. Hundreds of Iraqis have been wounded - security guards, ordinary citizens, children. A U.S. official says locals working for the U.S.-organized Iraqi Facilities Protection Service, which guards the outer perimeter of many strategic sites, have paid a steep price. At the Baghdad Hotel, Iraqi guards shot up a suicide bomber's vehicle as it approached, preventing the bomb from detonating next to the hotel; six guards died in the explosion.

The danger zones are also expanding. Attacks have been spreading beyond the Sunni triangle, the perilous swath stretching north and west from Baghdad that is the home turf of Saddam's supporters. Two weeks ago, the normally tranquil city of Kirkuk experienced a run of resistance fighters' nightly raids aimed at U.S. patrols and the local police who support them. U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that guerrillas from the triangle are trying to open a new front up north. Last week's violence in the Shi'ite stronghold of Baghdad's Sadr City, led by the rabble-rousing cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, may signal a surge of sectarian anger from a population that had been largely quiet.

Despite all that, a senior U.S. military official in Iraq insists there is no resistance, as such. "Stop right there," he said when he heard the word. "Resistance is way too strong. Look around. We're not facing some kind of organized guerrilla force. What's happening is that peace and stability are taking hold, and the more they do, noncompliant forces are becoming more desperate and radicalized."

Who Is Responsible?

In the beginning, the Bush Administration tended to blame the attacks on die-hard Saddam loyalists whom Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed "deadenders." It was assumed that those fighters wanted to see Saddam restored to power. In the Sunni triangle, the remnants of the Baath Party regime are thought to still account for a sizable segment of the anti-American militants. But U.S. officials believe they are making progress against the loyalists, as more figures from the deposed regime are captured or killed. Pentagon officers say the modest scale of the attacks suggests that they are conducted by small cells operating largely on their own. "If they could launch bigger attacks," says a Central Command officer, "they would."

The Americans don't believe that the resistance is organized. Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq, says, "We have not established convincingly that there is national-level leadership directing this low-intensity conflict." Instead the conflict may be mutating into a more generalized, popular fight against the foreign occupation by Saddam loyalists, some foreign fighters and citizens who did not support Saddam but now resent America's presence, according to Iraqis close to the resistance. "The anti-American forces don't have any overall strategy," says Lieut. Colonel Brian Drinkwine, commander of the 1505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, which controls Fallujah, the site of many deadly attacks. "They just want America out of Iraq."

It is easy to imagine how some Iraqis would chafe in the presence of the occupying force. Conservative Muslims have expressed anger at the random raids by coalition soldiers who search their houses and, in some of the biggest perceived outrages, rummage through women's wardrobes. Iraqis also resent the roundups that detain civilians, including many innocents, for weeks on end. U.S. troops have fallen into lethal fire fights, like the one in Karbala last Friday, when they clashed with religious groups. And they are alienating poor farmers like Abdel Fattah Naef, who once maintained lush orchards in a town 60 miles north of Baghdad. Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division bulldozed his farmland last month following a series of ambush attacks on American convoys traveling past it. "If nine people in this area hated the Americans before this," says Naef, "now there are 90."

In addition, there are signs of foreign involvement in the unrest. U.S. officials doubt that Iraqis by themselves had the know-how to pull off assaults like the car bombings. Moreover, a Pentagon intelligence officer in Iraq told TIME, "It is totally against the psychology of the Iraqi people" to become willing suicide bombers. In Washington's view, the troublemakers are foreign terrorists, either al-Qaeda operatives or returning members of the al-Qaeda - linked Iraqi group Ansar al-Islam. Many Iraqis blame the big hits on an influx of Arab Islamists bent on holy war. Observers say unknown numbers have slipped into Iraq from Iran, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The declining influence of Saddam's loyalists has apparently emboldened Iraq's Islamist groups to begin coordinating with foreign fighters eager to battle America. "They are coming into Iraq through many gates," says Ali Abdul Ameer, spokesman for the Iraqi National Accord, which is taking its turn this month to head the Governing Council. "We cannot stop them." The U.S. has installed Iraqi police to patrol a frontier as long and as porous as the U.S. border with Mexico, but they number just 2,700, perhaps 10% of what U.S. officials say is required. The U.S. says it is working to stop illegal entry, but bottling up the borders will not be easy.

Whatever their exact affiliation and degree of organization, all the militants are pursuing the same objective: to force the U.S. out of Iraq. Their strategy is to create chaos and destabilize the country. Attacks against the people trying to rebuild the country aim, no doubt, to show Iraqis that the U.S. can't govern the country and convince the Americans that the effort is too costly.

What's the Solution?

Inside the Pentagon, the brass maintain that as long as U.S. troops are dying by ones and twos, they can deal with it. But the steady accumulation of casualties is generating political fallout that goes beyond the President's declining approval rating. An unscientific but arresting survey last week in Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-subsidized but editorially independent military newspaper, reported that half the troops serving in Iraq believe their unit's morale is low. A third said their mission lacked clarity; half said they were unlikely to re-enlist. Perceptions like those undermine military authority and help sour the U.S. public on the mission.

By last week, as soldiers emailed complaints to their Congressmen, a solid phalanx on Capitol Hill was berating the Administration for sending troops to Iraq without adequate protection. Some 40,000 soldiers lack heavy-duty body armor. Hundreds of units have patrolled without effectively armored humvees. And troops don't have enough portable electronic jammers to keep remote-controlled mines from exploding under their vehicles. Lawmakers demanded that the Administration budget $46 million to buy 170 more jammers and $181 million for 800 up-armored, or fully reinforced, humvees. Meanwhile some G.I.s were shelling out $650 apiece out of their own pockets to buy the bullet-stopping ceramic plates missing from their flak vests.

Those practical measures should help cut down American casualties in the near term. So should more aggressive tactics and better intelligence in the field. But there is no obvious way to stop the violence that threatens to broaden into determined national resistance, at least until security and government responsibilities are handed back to Iraqis and the country can stand on its feet. Any conquered people is impatient to regain freedom and make a new life. The analogy Americans might have to worry about is not the one frequently made - to Vietnam - but to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With the Palestinians left too long under foreign rule, even the military might of Israel has been unable to quell the resistance or keep Israeli soldiers safe.

- Reported by Mark Thompson/Washington, Brian Bennett/ Ramadi, Romesh Ratnesar/Duluiyah and Simon Robinson/ Baghdad