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Iraq: Specter Of More 'Terrible Days' Forcing U.S. To Reassess Security Situation

  • Charles Recknagel

The continuing death toll for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, including 19 killed yesterday, is changing the way the media and many U.S. officials speak about the military situation in the country. Early talk about attacks on U.S. troops as isolated incidents is now increasingly giving way to assessments that Washington is facing a determined armed resistance bent on challenging the U.S. in a protracted guerrilla conflict.

Prague, 3 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of attacks that killed 19 American soldiers yesterday, U.S. officials are vowing to see Iraq's reconstruction through, but they also are speaking in terms of having to win an ongoing war to do it.

Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, speaking in Washington, called yesterday's attacks -- the deadliest against U.S. soldiers since the collapse of deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime in April -- the kind of "terrible day" Americans will have to bear if they are to prevail in Iraq:

"It was a terrible day. In war, there are going to be terrible days, and unfortunately it's necessary to work our way through these things, and ultimately, we're going to prevail," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld's description of yesterday's attacks -- including the downing of a Chinook helicopter that killed 16 servicemen near the central town of Al-Fallujah -- as "war" offered a glimpse into how recent events are causing U.S. officials to reassess how they speak of the security situation in Iraq.

In the months immediately after coalition forces removed Hussein from power, the U.S. administration and many correspondents viewed attacks on U.S. soldiers as isolated incidents carried out by a range of suspects, including Hussein loyalists, Al-Qaeda sympathizers, and common criminals.

But as the frequency of the attacks on U.S. forces has grown to an average of 35 a day, the language being used to describe the violence in Iraq today is increasingly becoming that used to describe a low-level guerrilla war.

"The New York Times" said today in an analysis of the weekend attacks that "Americans have been dying for months in Iraq, attacked by an enemy whose nature remains murky. But the downing of the Chinook helicopter...brought the insurgency to a new level and suggested its growing effectiveness."

Britain's "Times" daily speaks of the events in similar terms. In an analysis titled "The New War in Iraq," the daily says that "what the weekend attack has made brutally clear is that America is still at war in Iraq. Large parts of the country -- largely the Shia south and the Kurdish north -- are making a steady, if unpublicized, recovery. But in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the heartland of the former Baathist regime, violence and fear are still the norm."

Amid the mounting references to a guerrilla conflict in Iraq, debate continues over the degree of threat it represents for U.S. soldiers. The commander of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, said over the weekend that the recent operations against his troops represent an "operationally and strategically insignificant surge of attacks."

Whatever their military impact, the attacks all appear directed toward a single goal -- to wear down, through a protracted guerrilla struggle, both America's determination to reconstruct Iraq and ordinary Iraqis' confidence that Washington will stay the course.

"The New York Times" recently reported that as the attacks continue, they are growing into steadily more sophisticated military operations. In ambushes of U.S. convoys, the attackers often remotely detonate an explosive device in the path of the convoy, spray the vehicles with automatic weapons fire, then withdraw under covering mortar fire. U.S. officials usually attribute such operations to well-trained former soldiers, such as the Fedayeen, an elite force once pledged to fight to the death for Hussein.

The attacks on coalition and related targets equally include suicide bombings, which are often blamed by U.S. officials on militants coming to fight in Iraq from other countries. The anti-U.S. operations have also expanded in recent weeks with psychological warfare aimed at convincing Iraqis the occupation authorities are on the defensive. Unknown groups warning over the weekend that 1 November would be a "day of resistance" caused most parents in Baghdad to keep their children out of school. Shoppers also stayed out of the market places, despite the fact no attacks or bombings occurred in the city.

To confront the mounting security challenge, the Coalition Provisional Authority announced two days ago that it is now going to speed up the training of Iraqi police and troops to assist the some 130,000 U.S. forces deployed in the country.

The chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, told reporters in Baghdad that by next September more than 200,000 Iraqis will be involved in defending their country, including members of a new Iraqi Army, police officers, and civil defense forces.

"We will accelerate the turnover of responsibility and authority to Iraqis. Aside from the fact that Iraqis bring vital language and cultural skills to the task of fighting terrorism, it is important that they take a central role in their own defense. This is, after all, their country. It is their future. To that end, we will double the size of the Iraqi civil defense corps by March. We will accelerate the training of the new Iraqi Army and a professional Iraqi police force," Bremer said.

The decision to accelerate the training of Iraqi defense forces comes amid criticism from the Iraqi Governing Council that the coalition has been too slow to share security responsibilities. A prominent Shi'a cleric and council member, Abdul Aziz Hakim, said late last week that the U.S. had made a "serious mistake" in not giving Iraqis more authority over their own security. The coalition disbanded the Hussein-era army and police after the occupation of Iraq, and recruitment for new forces has been slowed by efforts to screen out Ba'athist loyalists.

The increasingly challenging security situation in Iraq has prompted calls from some U.S. lawmakers to increase the number of American troops in the country, despite the U.S. administration's desire to reduce forces following its 1 May declaration of the end of major combat. A total of 138 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since then.

U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, the top-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that sending more troops would be opposed by most Americans but might be necessary to secure the country until the planned Iraqi forces complete their training:

"I am going to say something very, very unpopular, and it is going to get me in trouble at home [with voters]. In the short-term, we may need more American forces in [Iraq] while we are training these people up [for the Iraqi police and military]," Biden said.

American political leaders continue to engage in a heated debate over whether Washington should continue to shoulder most of the security burden in Iraq or seek to further share it with other countries under the auspices of the United Nations.