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Iraq: Top U.S. Commander Says Troops Face Guerrilla Resistance

The new top commander of American forces in Iraq, General John Abizaid, says his troops are facing a coordinated guerrilla resistance there. His statement marks a clear change in how Washington regards the continuing armed attacks in Iraq, which the Pentagon originally characterized as the work of a number of isolated groups. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at Abizaid's assessment of the security situation and whether it could impact U.S. efforts to get other states to send troops to help patrol the country.

Prague, 17 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- General John Abizaid, the recently appointed head of the U.S. Central Command, provided an in-depth assessment of the security situation in Iraq during a Pentagon briefing yesterday.

Abizaid, who has top responsibility for U.S. forces in Iraq, said his soldiers are facing the kind of well-planned and coordinated attacks that are characteristic of a classic guerrilla war against an occupying force.

He described the operations against U.S. forces in Iraq by saying, "We're seeing a cellular organization, of six to eight people armed with RPGs, machine guns, et cetera, attacking us sometimes at times and places of their choosing, and other times we attack them at times and places of our choosing. They are receiving financial help from probably regional-level leaders, and I think describing it as guerrilla tactics being employed against us is, you know, a proper [description]."

Abizaid also said that he would characterize the security situation in Iraq today as a low-level conflict in which U.S. and anti-U.S. forces are carrying out regular operations against one another.

"It is low-intensity conflict in our doctrinal terms, but it is war, however you describe it. The troops are doing a magnificent job facing this particular problem."

He continued, "We take casualties and we cause casualties to be inflicted upon the enemy because we are at war, and it is very important to know that as many of the casualties inflicted upon us have come at the initiation of military action offensively by the United States, as by our troops being attacked by the enemy."

The general's statements mark a clear change in how Washington regards continuing armed attacks in Iraq, which the Pentagon originally characterized as the work of a number of isolated and unorganized groups, including common criminals.

As recently as 30 June, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the press that the attacks were not "anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance."

Since then, however, U.S. President George W. Bush said for the first time last week that "there's no question we have got a security issue in Iraq." Rumsfeld over the weekend acknowledged that "it's pretty clear in a city or an area, there is coordination" of attacks on U.S. soldiers.

The assessment that U.S. forces now face a coordinated, guerrilla resistance could complicate Washington's efforts to persuade additional countries to contribute troops to stabilize postwar Iraq.

So far, several countries -- including Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, Spain, and some Latin American states -- have altogether promised to send some 5,000 soldiers to help patrol sectors that are mostly in the quiet south-central region of Iraq. That region is predominantly populated by Iraq's majority Shia community, which was oppressed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

But India -- which Washington had pressed hard to send 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers to command a sector of northern Iraq around the city of Mosul -- earlier this week rejected the idea of sending its troops without a UN mandate. Mosul is an extension of the north-central area of Iraq that is home to the minority Sunni community, elements of which benefited from Hussein's rule. The north-central region has been the site of most guerrilla operations.

The specter of guerrilla resistance in Iraq may now further convince countries like India that they were right to oppose the U.S.-led war on Baghdad without a UN mandate and that they should not join Washington and London in a "coalition of the willing" patrolling the country.

Similarly, France and Germany have made it clear that they will not agree to any unilateral NATO dispatch of forces to Iraq, despite a U.S. Senate resolution last week saying Bush "should consider formally and expeditiously" requesting just such a deployment. NATO is currently limiting its involvement in Iraq to intelligence, communications, and logistics support for part of the planned south-central multinational force.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer yesterday ruled out any role for German troops in Iraq, saying "the responsibility on the ground is in the hands of the coalition. We are not part of the coalition."

The U.S. daily "The Wall Street Journal" reported today that the Pentagon could call up as many as 10,000 National Guard soldiers to reinforce the U.S. presence in Iraq in March or April. Such a deployment would help to offset any lack of troops contributed by other states.

Daniel Neep, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says that there are signs that the armed resistance to U.S. and British forces in Iraq could grow in the future.

Neep also says that the resistance may not appeal only to Hussein loyalists intent on forcing out the allies in hopes of regaining power. He says coalition forces are increasingly being seen as occupiers rather than liberators. To turn that tide, he says, the allies need to become more effective at building bridges to the population.

"I think it is very tempting to fall back on this idea of remnants of the former regime conducting a war of attrition clandestinely. It seems to be that many of the indications being given by the U.S. recently seem to be saying that this is all it is, it's Baathist loyalists who are waging this war. I think they have to dig a little bit deeper. The tide of public opinion in Iraq seems to be going against them quite rapidly. They are increasingly being seen as occupiers rather than liberators."

Neep says the discontent is being fueled by the fact that coalition authorities "have not managed to get the electricity back on; there are still problems with basic infrastructure like that which are feeding this discontent and frustration. And I think that in many cases local grievances and local factors are going to feed into the resistance. It's not necessarily all been orchestrated by some guiding intelligence from inside a bunker somewhere."

While describing the resistance yesterday, Abizaid said that U.S. forces would have to adapt their tactics to counter the guerrilla attacks. He said U.S. troops should be prepared for year-long deployments in Iraq rather than more rapid rotations as originally planned. Year-long rotations were standard during the Vietnam War but have rarely been used by the U.S. Army since.

Neep says year-long rotations could help bridge-building efforts between the U.S. troops and the population since the soldiers would then regard themselves as more involved with the communities around them. Such involvement is characteristic of long-term peacekeeping operations, where the trust of communities is essential to helping root out insurgents.

Almost daily attacks on U.S. units have killed more than 30 soldiers since U.S. President George W. Bush announced that major military operations had ended in Iraq on 1 May.

The toll for all U.S. combat deaths since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq on 20 March now equals the number of American combat deaths in the 1991 Gulf War.