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Iraq: U.S. Says Anti-Coalition Attacks Have Decreased, But Why?

  • Charles Recknagel --> U.S. officials say attacks on U.S. forces have declined in the wake of the capture of Saddam Hussein. But it remains unclear whether the former Iraqi leader's arrest last month marked a turning point in the fight against insurgents or merely brings a lull while anti-U.S. forces regroup. RFE/RL spoke with military analysts about the security situation.

Prague, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. officials in Iraq say the number of attacks on U.S. troops has dropped by half since the capture of Saddam Hussein on 13 December.

U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer told a U.S. television network earlier this week that "in the last three or four weeks we've seen a rather dramatic reduction in the number of attacks on the coalition. They are down by about 50 percent."

The U.S. military says attacks are now down to about 17 a day, compared to twice that number two months ago.

Bremer also credited the drop in attacks to what he called improved counterinsurgency strategies and on the greater willingness of informants to help U.S. forces now that the former Iraqi leader is behind bars.

But not everyone agrees with Bremer's assessment that the security situation has significantly improved in Iraq. A recent report from Baghdad in Britain's daily "The Independent" confirms that the number of attacks on U.S. forces is down. But the report says, "this is in large part because, eager to cut their casualties, U.S. commanders cut the number of patrols they carry out by two-thirds from 1,500 a day in November to 500 a day in December."

To get a clearer picture of the security situation in Iraq, RFE/RL spoke today with two military analysts.

Julian Lindley-French, a security expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, says the drop off in attacks is due to a range of factors. He says foremost among them are better intelligence and community liaison techniques that now enable U.S. forces to patrol and keep peace more efficiently. "One [reason] is improved intelligence, so that patrols are much more targeted. Patrols tend to go to places now where they have reason to go, whereas in the early days it was blanket coverage. Second, it has been very impressive how U.S. forces have learned how to 'peacekeep' more effectively," he said.

He continued: "Third, undoubtedly, is that they are winning more hearts and minds as they improve the quality of life of many Iraqis, improve electricity and water supplies. Fourth, it's cooler, which does have an impact. But of course, the capture of Saddam Hussein has at least made those who were in the margins of support of the insurgents think twice."

The analyst says that the drop-off in attacks is a sign that over time the U.S. forces are successfully establishing ties with Iraqi community leaders and convincing them to help maintain order themselves and identify insurgents. That, plus the gradual reformation of the Iraqi police and military, is increasingly enabling U.S. forces to withdraw to their bases and conduct sorties only as needed to capture weapons stores or attack guerrilla centers.

Lindley-French says those techniques have taken time for U.S. forces to learn because the U.S. Army is usually trained to fight large wars won with massive power, not small insurgencies won by community relations. He says much of the model for the new techniques comes from the British Army, which has years of imperial experience maintaining order in foreign societies with relatively small force deployments.

But some analysts say it is still too early to talk about the United States reaching a turning point in Iraq.

Phillip Mitchell is a ground-power specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He says only time will tell whether the drop in attacks will be sustained or whether it simply represents a lull in activity following particularly intense attacks by insurgents in November.

Mitchell says Hussein's arrest probably has demoralized some elements of the anti-U.S. forces. But he says still at large are several key former regime figures suspected of organizing the insurgency campaign -- and they are likely to continue their efforts. "The loss of, albeit, a figurehead, is bound to have had a restraining influence out there," he said. "But there are still a number of those individuals on the most-wanted list who are still at large and who are still presumed to be orchestrating the guerrilla campaign."

He added, "Until the leaders on that particular list are captured and until such time as the economic situation improves within Iraq, then this degree of unrest is bound to continue."

U.S. forces have captured or killed 42 of the former regime leaders on a most-wanted list of 55 individuals sought since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in April. The most recent arrest came this week with the detention of No. 54 on the list, Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Ba'ath Party chairman and commander of the Ba'ath Party militia for Karbala Governorate.

However, U.S. forces continue to look for the man whom they consider to be the most active in organizing armed resistance by regime loyalists: Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a top Hussein aide and formerly the vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council. U.S. officials have placed a $10 million bounty on his head.

Analysts say it remains unknown to what extent anti-U.S. attacks are carried out by former regime elements and to what extent by Islamic militants, including foreigners coming to Iraq. It is also uncertain whether the two sides cooperate and whether a reversal in the fortunes of one -- such as the capture of Hussein -- would be a blow or a boon to the other.

U.S. officials this week announced that a document found with Hussein when he was captured in December warned his supporters to be cautious in dealing with the foreign Islamic fighters, or jihadists, because their goals may not be the same. If the two groups are rivals, a setback for Hussein's supporters could provide Islamist groups new opportunities to seize the leadership of the guerilla movement.