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Iraq: 'Ramadan Offensive' -- Resistance Stepping Up Attacks As U.S. Searches For A Response (Part 1)

  • Andrew Tully

Washington, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In recent weeks, U.S. President George W. Bush and his senior military officials have insisted that the guerrilla war now taking place in Iraq does not require more troops.

At a White House news conference on Tuesday, Bush was again asked about troop levels in Iraq, and again he said that both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the country, tell him they do not need them.

"I've constantly asked the secretary of defense, as well as when I was visiting General Abizaid, 'Does he have what it takes to do his mission?' He told me he does," Bush said.

Bush also repeated his assertion that the recent surge in guerrilla attacks represents what he calls a "desperate" reaction to the great successes achieved by U.S. and other coalition forces, as well as by the civilian administration, in their first months of rebuilding Iraq.

Yet, the guerrillas appear to be stepping up their attacks -- being called by some the "Ramadan Offensive" because of the four apparently coordinated suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 36 people on Monday, the first day of the Muslim holy month.

Yesterday, U.S. military authorities in Iraq said U.S. forces are now suffering an average of 33 attacks a day -- up from about 12 daily attacks in July. A total of 117 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since 1 May, when Bush declared an end to major fighting. That's slightly more than the 114 soldiers who died in the invasion itself.

Bush laid responsibility for the new attacks on loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, as well as foreign fighters, presumably Arabs and other Muslims drawn to Iraq by the opportunity to strike against the United States and its allies.

And they do not have far to look for weapons. The Iraqi landscape is reported to be littered with ammunition dumps -- most of them unguarded -- that contain weapons ranging from small arms to simple explosives to rocket-launched missiles.

The extent of the foreign fighters' contribution to the guerrilla war is a matter of debate, but there is no question that these combatants are making a measurable contribution,according to retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, who served in Europe in military intelligence. Allard said foreign fighters are taking full advantage of the variety of weapons in ammunition dumps.

Allard told RFE/RL that former Iraqi military officials might be behind attacks that use more complex weaponry, such as the multiple rockets fired at Baghdad's Al-Rasheed Hotel on Sunday while Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying there. Wolfowitz was not hurt, but a U.S. Army colonel was killed and 18 other people were wounded.

But Allard stressed that the use of less sophisticated arms -- explosives, for instance -- can also be devastating. He said the Iraqi resistance appears prepared to use every weapon available to strike at the Americans. "From their standpoint as guerrillas, you want to have the combination of the instruments of terror -- all of them," Allard said. "And so I think what has happened is that they have adopted a new and very sophisticated strategy, which thus far U.S. officials do not seem (A) to recognize and (B) [are] prepared to confront the actualities of what needs to be done."

According to Allard, the various leaders of the Iraqi guerrilla forces might be relegating the use of explosives and other crude weapons to the foreign fighters. He says the Iraqi commanders might prefer to give the foreign fighters the responsibility for conducting suicide bombings because they came to Iraq perhaps for religious and ideological reasons.

"This is probably an effective division of labor," Allard said. "I mean, the Iraqis show every sign of wanting to go on and live another day." He said said he believes the foreign fighters are "only too glad" to be used as suicide attackers on the behalf of the Ba'athists.

As the resistance attacks have intensified recently, Allard said, it has become increasingly clear that the only way to fight back is with enough force to secure vulnerable cities and deny the guerrillas access to the ubiquitous ammunition depots.

For some reason, however, Allard said, the leadership in Washington does not recognize this. "What Rumsfeld and the rest have been very slow to grasp is that in that kind of war, it actually requires fewer troops to overthrow the government than it does to win the peace," he said.

More troops might help, but they are not the entire answer to America's problems in Iraq, according to Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon and State Department intelligence analyst. Cordesman now studies global strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private policy-research institute in Washington.

Cordesman said higher troop levels alone cannot pacify Iraq. For example, he points to the country's long, rugged, and porous borders, and the time it would take to train foreign border guards to operate effectively. Ultimately, Cordesman said, the answer is not necessarily a greater coalition force. "Our greatest problem now is, we have very competent counterinsurgency forces, but very weak intelligence and no easy way to improve it, because we do not have people with the kind of experience we developed in Vietnam," Cordesman said. "We have a massive shortage of language skills, and we have an appalling shortage of [regional] expertise, particularly in dealing with local issues in Iraq."

Cordesman also disputed Allard's assertion about a division of labor between indigenous and foreign guerrillas in Iraq. He says there is a tendency to think of foreign fighters in Iraq as a well-focused catalyst in the guerrilla war.

Instead, he said, these combatants are a disparate group, including foreigners who were present before the war began and those who have infiltrated since the war began -- both from a wide range of areas.

Besides these foreign combatants, Cordesman said, coalition forces must contend with predominantly native fighters such as the northern terrorist network Ansar al-Islam, as well as Saddam loyalists and diehards of his Ba'ath Party, plus Sunni Muslims who resent the recent ascendancy of Iraqi Shi'a and Kurds, and finally ordinary Iraqis who are merely hostile to the foreign presence.

And, according to Cordesman, both Iraqi and foreign guerrillas can enhance their own effectiveness by taking advantage of the broad variety of weapons at Iraq's many ammunition depots. "Part of the problem we are dealing with is these groups are so diverse, they have many different motives, but they have a common objective, which essentially is to break up the nation-building effort and drive the United States out," Cordesman said. "And each of them is going to use methods of attack which are opportunistic."

What is worse, Cordesman said, is the way this war is being fought at home, in the United States. He says the Bush administration evidently has not learned the hard lessons of Vietnam in the 1960s and early '70s.

At that time, the administrations of U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon struggled to reassure the American people about the success of the war, only to have their words contradicted by daily news dispatches from the front. Cordesman said American history may now be repeating itself with the war in Iraq. "One of our problems is that, as in Vietnam, we have official U.S. spokesmen grossly oversimplifying the situation, exaggerating the progress we have made to date, and creating false expectations," Cordesman said.

(Tomorrow, our correspondent explores the politics of U.S. President George W. Bush's insistence that the guerrilla offensive is a desperate response to coalition successes in Iraq.)