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Iraq: U.S. Stepping Up Efforts To Combat Iraqi Guerrilla Fighters

The United States is stepping up military efforts to counter increasing attacks on U.S. and allied troops in Iraq. The top U.S. general responsible for Iraq says he will re-establish his regional headquarters in Qatar in order to be closer to operations. At the same time, U.S. troops are experimenting with using air power to destroy buildings in Baghdad used by guerrillas. RFE/RL looks at the changes in U.S. strategy.

Prague, 14 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As attacks against allied forces have steadily escalated in recent days -- including nighttime mortar fire against coalition bases in Baghdad -- the U.S. is reviving its regional headquarters in Qatar.

General John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters yesterday he is re-establishing his regional headquarters in Doha in order to be closer to military operations in both countries. The headquarters, a high-technology command center for air and ground military operations, was most recently used to conduct the campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in April.

Abizaid, speaking at the Central Command's permanent base in Florida, said, "Clearly, I see a sense of urgency to the current military situation" in Iraq. But he said U.S. forces are well equipped to deal with the problems. "There is no military threat in Iraq that can drive us out," he said. "We have the best-equipped, best-trained army in the world in position in the toughest areas that we have to deal with."

The general estimated the number of fighters operating against U.S. and allied forces at no more than 5,000 and said the insurgency remains a loosely organized operation.

Abizaid said there "is some level of cooperation that's taking place at very high levels, although I'm not sure I'd say there's a national-level resistance leadership." He also said "the most dangerous enemy to us at the present time are the former regime loyalists" operating in central Iraq.

The re-establishment of the command center in Qatar comes as U.S. troops in Iraq this week adopted new tactics to combat guerrilla attacks that have risen to an average of 37 per day across the country. The new tactics center on rapid counterattacks against groups that have just fired at U.S. and allied troops and on the use of air and ground power to destroy buildings used as firing sites or safe havens.

A total of 185 coalition soldiers -- 156 of them American -- have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since 1 May, when the U.S. declared the end of major combat.

The U.S. military formally announced its new counterattack strategy, dubbed Operation Iron Hammer, in Washington on 12 November. The operation is due to continue indefinitely.

U.S. forces say early successes for the operation this week include a helicopter strike that killed two guerrillas fleeing in a van after firing mortars. The U.S. Army also deployed two of its massive-fire gunships, usually used against battlefield armor, to damage a former Republican Guard building and warehouse in the capital believed to be used by guerrillas.

Military experts say the new counterinsurgency tactics have several advantages. They are militarily effective in destroying guerilla units, and they send a powerful psychological message that the U.S. can bring overwhelming power to bear against them.

But analysts also note that deploying massive firepower against insurgents in populated areas carries high risks for bystanders. That gives U.S. planners a difficult choice -- whether to carry out counterattacks to catch insurgents by surprise or carry out counterattacks only after the public is safely out of the way.

Phillip Mitchell, a military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the U.S. has put its priority so far on avoiding civilian casualties. "The U.S. is, in fact, warning the locals in the area that buildings or locations are going to be attacked, avoiding the possibility of any unnecessary deaths but equally thus giving warning to the opposition forces to get the hell out of the way, as well," he said.

He added, "Were these warnings not to be given, then the likelihood is that there would be large numbers of civilian casualties. And if there were those sort of casualties, then you are alienating an already alienated population, making things worse for yourself."

Analysts say another problem with stepping up counterinsurgency operations in populated areas is that it gives the impression that combat is escalating and that the authorities are having greater difficulty maintaining order. Baghdad currently is rocked by loud explosions at night that are only likely to multiply as allied troops strike back at guerrillas.

Mitchell says the best way to address these concerns is for U.S. forces to speedily place the counterinsurgency operations in the hands of Iraqis themselves. He says doing so would make ordinary citizens feel more psychologically invested in a struggle that today is being mostly waged by foreign forces. "It is the Iraqi police and security forces who should be carrying out the majority of these cordon-and-search operations to root out the opposition forces, backed up by the U.S., rather than the U.S. going in and kicking down doors," he said.

Washington announced this week it will accelerate efforts to transfer power to Iraqi authorities. The U.S. recently stepped up the pace of recruitment and training of Iraqi forces, saying its goal is to have more than 200,000 Iraqis involved in security efforts in the country by next September.