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Iraq: U.S. Seeks Ways To Improve Security Situation

Amid a spate of attacks on U.S. troops and new counterinsurgency operations in the center of the country, some U.S. officials are warning that violence in Iraq could increase over the months ahead unless Washington finds better security strategies. RFE/RL looks at the security situation in Iraq and some of the ideas being proposed to improve it.

Prague, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer says he expects increased attacks on coalition forces and reconstruction efforts unless the quality of U.S. intelligence on insurgents and foreign fighters gets better.

Bremer, quoted today in an interview with Britain's daily "The Times," said that "we're going to have increased attacks and increased terrorism because the terrorists can see the reconstruction dynamic is moving in our direction."

The U.S. official spoke as violence against U.S. forces in Iraq has ratcheted up sharply during the past 10 days in central Iraq, including the downing of a Chinook transport helicopter and the ambush of an armored U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle. The circumstances around the downing of a U.S. Black Hawk attack helicopter last week remain uncertain.

The upsurge in violence, which is seeing anti-U.S. fighters deploying shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and heavier roadside bombs to extend their attacks beyond their usual target of convoy trucks, has brought correspondingly stronger responses from coalition troops.

U.S. aircraft dropped at least two 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs in the Al-Fallujah area over the weekend in the first bombing raid in Iraq since U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations on 1 May. The bombs hit empty homes suspected of serving as safehouses for insurgents. A U.S. military spokesperson said the bombings were designed to send a message that the U.S. can bring overwhelming force to bear against its opponents.

As the intensity of fighting in central Iraq increases, U.S. officials are now routinely referring to the combat as part of an ongoing guerrilla war. The prospect that the conflict could intensify further is prompting them to publicly discuss what needs to be done to bring the security situation under better control. In addition to Bremer's call for better military intelligence about how anti-U.S. forces operate, many top U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed the need to turn over more security duties to Iraqi forces.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, visiting Baghdad over the weekend, described Iraq as a "war zone." And he said Washington views the fielding of Iraqi security forces as the key to enabling the U.S. to reduce its troop strength in the country over the coming months.

"I think it is a war zone. [U.S.] President [George W. Bush] declared that the end of major combat occurred on 1 May, but he didn't say it was the end of combat. And it has continued, and as Lieutenant General [Ricardo] Sanchez [the top U.S. military commander in Iraq] has said, probably from this very podium, we are involved in an insurgency --and that's pretty close to war," Armitage said.

He continued: "We do intend over time, as the situation permits, to lower our troop strength a bit, as has been announced from Washington. But this presupposes that Iraqi gendarmerie, police forces, and army have come up to a certain level of participation."

Analysts say that Washington may be counting on the Iraqi forces to take over much of the street patrolling that exposes U.S. and other coalition soldiers to daily ambushes in some parts of the country.

Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London recently told Britain's daily "The Guardian" that one alternative under discussion is "for the Americans to withdraw into fortified bases and run specific, targeted raids from them, just as they have done in Afghanistan." He said that "security on the ground would thus be in the hands of regional figures."

Other analysts say that such a step may increasingly be Washington's only politically sensible option in the face of the mounting death toll on U.S. forces. That toll -- now standing at more than 150 U.S. soldiers killed in attacks since 1 May -- is putting the U.S. administration under heavy pressure from domestic critics who fault it for being unprepared to deal with post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Julian Lindley-French, a security expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, told RFE/RL that if the Americans are going to stay in Iraq, they will have to retreat into some fairly large military camps that are well-protected and from which they can operate.

"If the political cost of losing one or two coalition troops, mainly American troops, every day mounts at home and yet the political objective remains the same as it is today, then I find it hard to believe that the operation of control from well-protected bases outside cities can be avoided," Lindley-French said.

In one sign of growing U.S. determination to field Iraqi security forces quickly, "The Washington Post" reported last week that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) may now be ready to conditionally support the creation of an Iraqi paramilitary force that would include members of the militias of pro-U.S. political parties. The U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council has said it wants such a force to include former employees of Iraq's security services and militia members, to comprise a domestic intelligence-gathering unit, and to have broad powers to conduct raids and interrogate suspects. Council members have argued that Iraqi forces would be better able than foreign troops to work within the community and identify and root out guerrillas.

"The Washington Post" reported that Bremer could approve such a security force if it were composed of no more than a few thousand members and they were carefully screened by the CPA and Interior Ministry. The paper said Bremer had initially opposed the creation of a paramilitary force under the interior minister but has softened his position amid continuing attacks both on coalition targets and Iraqis working with the U.S.-led authorities.

The talk of a paramilitary force comes as the CPA recently announced it would speed up training of Iraqi police and troops to assist the some 130,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq. Bremer told reporters in Baghdad last week that by next September more than 200,000 Iraqis will be involved in security efforts in the country, including members of a new Iraqi army, police officers, and civil-defense forces.