Baghdad Bombings Raise Anew Questions About U.S. Strategy in Iraq

by RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr., ERIC SCHMITT and THOM SHANKER
September 17, 2005

This article was reported and written by Richard A. Oppel Jr., Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 16 - The rash of car bombings in Baghdad this week has once again thrown into debate whether the American and Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy is working.

The explosions underscored how the loosely knit and elusive networks of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former Baathists and other extremists still can recruit discontented Iraqis and foreign fighters to launch well-coordinated attacks, even as American and Iraqi forces stage offensives intended to root out the insurgents.

Before the latest round of bombings, one senior officer at the United States Central Command conceded that Mr. Zarqawi's organization remained "a very robust network" despite the heavily touted capture and killings of numerous underlings in Mosul, Tal Afar and other communities where the insurgents found refuge and even safe haven. One Marine officer in Anbar Province, a stronghold of the insurgency, described the military effort against the insurgency as "punching a balloon in the fog."

Melting away ahead of gathering forces, only to set up planning and bomb-making cells in another hideaway, the insurgents have avoided calamitous defeats. But recent changes in American and Iraqi tactics, plus gains in their intelligence on the insurgency - offered mostly by Iraqis angered at the antigovernment violence - have helped them capture or kill many fighters, including some identified as leaders, American commanders say.

The latest offensives against the insurgents and their rampage of violence in Baghdad come at a crucial time, as Iraq prepares for a constitutional referendum on Oct 15. "We are convinced we are going to fight our way to the elections," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the deputy chief of staff for coalition forces in Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Muhammad al-Askari, a strategic adviser to Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi, acknowledged that there was little security forces could do to prevent another round of attacks - and that it was impossible to prevent every suicide bomber from reaching a target in Baghdad.

"Any crazy guy anywhere in the world with weapons can create a catastrophe, no matter what the security measures," he said.

Although the attacks in Baghdad suggest that there may be cells of insurgents there, or at least that they can sneak into the city to plant bombs, senior officials at the Pentagon and in Iraq say they believe that Mr. Zarqawi and the insurgency's "center of gravity" is now in the bends and towns of the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border.

Commanders say they plan to squeeze the Zarqawi leadership and Iraqi insurgents in those areas. Throughout the spring and summer marines and Army forces staged raids into those same towns, confiscating weapons and killing scores of insurgents. But many fighters melted into the countryside, and there were not enough coalition troops to keep a sufficient presence in the villages.

Commanders say new offensives in Anbar Province in coming weeks will be modeled on the siege of Tal Afar, which used 8,500 American and Iraqi troops.

"You will see the same thing down along the Euphrates Valley to push back out and restore Iraqi control to the area around Qaim," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, said in an interview in Baghdad. General Casey said the Iraqi forces had little control of the country's border with Syria on either side of Qaim, a desolate town on the Euphrates.

The weeklong offensive at Tal Afar, and the major fight for Falluja last year, demonstrated that insurgents could not be wholly bottled up and prevented from fleeing.

In recent days, one new tactic was tried: in advance of the Tal Afar offensive, Col. H. R. McMaster, commander of the Third Armored Cavalary Regiment, ordered his troops and Iraqi security forces to stake out villages where guerrillas might seek refuge. Although the solution may have been imperfect, scores of insurgents were intercepted - including a group of five men disguised as women.

But independent analysts suggest that the strategy of driving the insurgents from urban centers and trying to capture or kill as many as possible, aiming especially at leaders, may be flawed. The violence in Baghdad is only one problem. Another is that the fighting may work against the search for political consensus among Iraqis.

Iraqi defense officials insist they are still trying to come up with a political solution that will avoid an all-out battle in Samarra, another insurgent base, because the offensive may further alienate the Sunni minority, who would view it as a means of suppressing the Sunni vote. Similar attempts failed to head off the offensive at Tal Afar, as they did a year ago in Falluja.

The insurgency knows it cannot win a conventional battle with American forces, but it has become quite proficient at fighting "the asymmetric war," said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"They are protected by the sheer number of cells and elements and different groups involved," he said. "There is no central structure to attack."

Some independent critics say that the unabated violence suggests the military has been focusing too much on hunting down and killing insurgents and not enough on providing security in population centers like Baghdad - safe zones that could spread like "oil spots," as Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. wrote in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

The offensive near Tal Afar is far from major populated areas, "so you are not building from your base of support out," said Mr. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in an interview. "The way you really defeat an insurgency is not so much by killing them, but by asphyxiating them."

Military sweeping operations are "like sticking your fist in a bucket of water," he said. "Things are changed as long as you're standing there, but they change back to the way they were when you pull our fist out."

Mr. Krepinevich's assessment is that the United States currently has "more than enough firepower in Iraq" to secure Baghdad and other significant population centers, should that become the military's focus. The real shortfall, he said, "is a matter of intelligence."

Commanders say their intelligence on the insurgency is improving. Col. Robert Brown, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's First Brigade, operating in northwest Iraq, said the best intelligence sources were Iraqis whose family members had been killed by insurgents and, in revenge, offer their services to the American military or the new domestic security services.

"So we have a number of sources that provide information," Colonel Brown said. " Some of these sources have moved up to pretty high-level positions, and it helps us quite a bit."

A senior Central Command officer said insurgents had detonated over 300 bombs so far this year. The officer said insurgents had launched 65 to 75 attacks a day against coalition forces in Iraq - 30 to 35 of them in Baghdad alone - a number that had remained steady for two months until this week's attacks.

Military and intelligence officials are reluctant to provide assessments on the size of the insurgency, since it is hard to count, drawing its members from foreign fighters, former Baathists, radical Shiites, disenfranchised Sunnis and criminals. The number of insurgents, which some have placed at 8,000 to 12,000, swells when sympathizers or covert accomplices are included. Officials estimate that there could be as many as 1,000 foreign fighters active in Iraq.

Commanders in Iraq say the answer is not more American troops, but to prepare enough Iraqi security forces to battle insurgents and patrol the cities, allowing American forces to step back from the front lines and away from the image of occupier.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the head of the Central Command, said in an interview this week that the trend was to deny insurgents their goal to infiltrate large urban centers. But at the same time, General Abizaid warned that progress in Iraq "won't be a straight line" and that "there will be a certain amount of violence, and we should expect it."

General Abizaid discounted the idea that more American troops were necessary, noting that many of the more than 180,000 newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police officers were flowing into the region, and taking larger roles in operations.

When asked how long the United States would remain in the lead in the military effort, General Abizaid said: "It's certainly our goal that in 2006 the Iraqis are out in front in counterinsurgency operations. However, I can't tell you that we will achieve that goal."

Richard A. Oppel Jr. reported from Baghdadfor this article, Eric Schmitt from Doha, Qatar, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company