Insurgents Display New Sophistication

by Thomas E. Ricks

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2004; Page A01

FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq, April 13 -- Insurgents fighting the U.S.-led occupation force have sharply increased the sophistication, coordination and aggressiveness of their tactics over the past week, Army officers and soldiers involved in combat here said.

Most dramatically, as several thousand U.S. troops pushed south this week from the Baghdad area to this new base in central Iraq, one highway bridge on their planned route was destroyed and two others were so heavily damaged that they could not be used by heavy Army trucks and armored vehicles.

Those attacks on convoy routes, which U.S. forces were using for the first time, revealed a previously unseen degree of coordination among insurgent groups, said Army Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, the commander of a brigade-size task force now assembling for possible combat operations against the forces of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr in or near the holy city of Najaf.

"The dropping of the bridges was very interesting, because it showed a regional or even a national level of organization," Pittard said in an interview. He said insurgents appeared to be sending information southward, communicating about routes being taken by U.S. forces and then getting sufficient amounts of explosives to key bridges ahead of the convoys.

With occupation forces battling Sadr's Shiite militiamen south and east of Baghdad and Sunni Muslim insurgents to the north and west, the timing of the Iraqis' tactical development is nearly as troubling for U.S. forces as its effect. But the explanation for the change is not yet clear, military commanders said.

Here in southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, U.S. officers say the best guess is that former soldiers who served under President Saddam Hussein have decided to lend their expertise and coordinating abilities to the untrained Shiite militiamen.

"It's a combination of Saddam loyalists and Shiite militias," Maj. Gen. John R. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said in a brief interview here at FOB Duke, where he was reviewing combat preparations.

Batiste said the influence of former Iraqi Republican Guard officers was especially apparent in the fighting in the Sunni town of Fallujah, where, he said, many veteran officers made their homes. "You could staff a division with the Iraqi officers living there," he said.

Maj. Kreg Schnell, Pittard's intelligence chief, agreed with Batiste's assessment. "There's been a marriage of convenience between Sadr's militia and Saddam loyalists," he said.

What officers here say they are not seeing is a sharp increase in the number of foreign guerrillas involved in the fighting. That element, said Pittard, is tiny -- perhaps "about 2 percent."

One of Pittard's combat engineers noted that several hundred pounds of explosive material and a fair degree of expertise were required to destroy a span on a major highway bridge. Several Army convoys moving south to this base -- the task force commanded by Pittard includes elements of the 1st Infantry Division, 2nd Infantry Division and 25th Infantry Division -- were delayed by more than 12 hours by the operations against the bridges, which Pittard called "irritating" but not a major problem.

The bridge demolitions are not the only evidence of the insurgents' increasing sophistication.

"When we first got here, it was just IEDs," the roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices, "and mortars," said Sgt. James Amyett, a scout with the 1st Infantry Division who arrived in Iraq just over a month ago. "Then all of a sudden, it's full-scale ambushes."

He was speaking in the predawn hours Tuesday while his convoy recovered from a roadside attack just west of the Euphrates River that began with a bomb and was followed by bursts of red tracer fire from a machine gun and several volleys of rocket-propelled grenades. One U.S. soldier was mortally wounded in the attack; another soldier and a civilian contractor were less seriously injured.

In a separate ambush east of Najaf, a group of fighters suspected to be part of Sadr's militia let a group of six U.S. armored vehicles pass their position, then placed obstacles across the highway behind them, cutting off their line of retreat. The armored vehicles were forced to move forward across a bridge. While they were on the bridge approaching a police checkpoint, Iraqi fighters, some of them wearing police uniforms, began firing on them. No U.S. troops were hurt in the incident.

In another departure being studied by U.S. military intelligence, groups of fighters launched synchronized attacks Friday on several U.S. and Iraqi installations in Baqubah, a provincial capital north of Baghdad. By simultaneously striking U.S. troops at the police station, the provincial governors' office and a U.S. military office, the insurgents displayed not only a considerable amount of planning and positioning but also a level of aggressiveness far beyond the roadside bombings and firing of rocket-propelled grenades that occur daily in Iraq.

"This ain't just 15-year-old kids with RPGs," said a combat engineer in the 1st Infantry Division.

The new assertiveness of the anti-U.S. fighters was displayed further later that day on the outskirts of Baqubah, where dozens of RPG-toting fighters confronted a platoon of four Bradley Fighting Vehicles, according to a 1st Infantry Division after-action report. "The platoon was literally surrounded by the enemy," the report said. One U.S. soldier and about 20 Iraqis were killed in the encounter, the report said.

"More and more, they're starting to stand and shoot," said Sgt. Maj. John Fourhman, the top enlisted soldier in the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade. "Before, they just ran."

In addition, Iraqi fighters have begun dynamiting highway overpasses in Baghdad. Though they did not destroy the spans, they succeeded in slowing traffic, depriving U.S. supply convoys of their best defense against ambushes -- speed. It is far easier to use roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades against a truck mired in traffic than it is to hit one moving at 60 mph.

The evolution of the insurgents' tactics is particularly surprising, military analysts say, because many such moves had been expected but did not occur during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last spring.

Attacks on bridges were widely expected within the Army because it was clear that the U.S. troops heading for Baghdad would have to cross the Euphrates. Also, while much of the Iraqi military, including its armored units and air force, was believed to have deteriorated badly after a decade of crippling economic sanctions, Iraqi military engineers, who would have overseen the destruction of bridges, were judged to be extremely competent. As it happened, not one bridge was detonated to block the path of the invasion force.

? 2004 The Washington Post Company