U.S. troops who repelled ambushes on two convoys in the central Iraqi city of Samarra yesterday say many of the attackers were dressed in the uniform of deposed President Saddam Hussein's former elite force, the Fedayeen. It is still unclear why the guerrillas chose to fight in uniform rather than in their more usual civilian disguise. One reason may have been to send a message to the local population that the Fedayeen remains a fighting force able to carry out complex operations.
Prague, 1 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. newspapers are calling the ambush of two convoys by guerrillas in Samarra yesterday the largest battle since the regime of President Saddam Hussein was toppled in April.
The battle saw some 100 insurgents firing from the street and rooftops as the convoys drove through the city. During the action, U.S. forces responded with tank and cannon fire, reportedly killing 54 fighters and capturing eight others. Five U.S. soldiers and one American civilian were wounded.
Lieutenant Colonel Bill MacDonald of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division told reporters in Tikrit yesterday that many of the fighters killed in Samarra were wearing the uniform of Hussein's former elite force, the Fedayeen.
"Many of the dead attackers were found wearing Fedayeen uniforms. We are sending a clear message that if any group attempts to attack our convoys, they will pay the price," MacDonald said.
The Fedayeen were an elite corps, sworn to fight to the death for Hussein's regime. Their distinctive black uniform was last widely seen in public in Iraq during March and April, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of the country.
Another U.S. Army spokesman, Colonel Frederick Rudesheim, said today in Samarra that the attacks on the convoys were carefully planned. The convoys were carrying newly issued Iraqi currency as part of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority's program to replace Hussein-era notes.
"It is our belief that this was a coordinated effort. It would be hard to say otherwise. Knowing that we were going in to have to do the Iraqi currency exchange, it's our belief that we had attackers prepared to ambush both of these convoys as they went in or as they went out," Rudesheim said.
The participation of uniformed fighters in the guerrilla operation against U.S. forces is an exception to the usual pattern of the insurgency in Iraq so far. Previously, attacks have been carried out by fighters in civilian disguise. Earlier this month, guerrillas pretending to be laborers with donkey carts fired more than a dozen rockets at Iraq's Oil Ministry in Baghdad.
Analysts say it remains unclear why the former Fedayeen fighters chose now to reappear in their uniforms. But they may have been partly motivated by a desire to send a message to the local population that they remain a fighting force able to carry out complex ambushes.
Paul Cornish, a military expert with the Department of War Studies at King's College in London, says that taking up ambush positions in uniform is a way to show strength.
"When they go and get into the ambush position, of course, they are thinking about the impression they make on the local population, and I guess it would be a show of strength and a show of force to the locals when a small company of militia men turned up all dressed in black and take positions. That looks pretty defiant and pretty strong," Cornish said.
But he says the insurgents in Iraq are still a long way from the point of routinely appearing in uniform to take on the U.S. in large-scale confrontations. He says the fighters who launched yesterday's attack likely planned to make only hit-and-run assaults but were taken by surprise by the convoys' firepower. The result was an unusually sustained engagement.
"Perhaps [the insurgents] are getting a little more self-confident. But I wouldn't read that much into it to the point that they are donning uniforms to take on the U.S. in strength. This is still a tiny force, and my reading of it is that they miscalculated the nature of the convoy and the amount of firepower that was in it," Cornish said.
Cornish notes that in classical guerrilla wars, insurgents do not routinely emerge in uniform from the cover of the civilian population until late in the history of a conflict. He says that step is usually taken only when a guerrilla movement is convinced it has the upper hand and can beat the enemy in conventional battles -- leaving a population no choice but to cooperate with it.
"In Maoist doctrine of revolutionary warfare, there is a point at which the insurgent comes out of the jungle, comes out of the population, and they then organize themselves into battalions. That's the point at which the initiative has swung so much in their favor that they can actually begin to take on the occupying forces in a conventional military battle. But you don't do that -- in Maoist doctrine, at least -- until you are absolutely convinced that the initiative is in your favor," Cornish said.
The analyst says there are no signs that Iraq's pro-Hussein fighters yet feel it is time to re-emerge as a conventional military force. But yesterday's action does come as part of a sustained campaign of attacks on U.S. and allied targets that increasingly shows the insurgents are well organized and may be difficult to eradicate.
Stepped-up attacks over the past four weeks made November the deadliest month for American soldiers in Iraq since the start of U.S. military operations in the country. "The New York Times" says 81 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in November. By comparison, 73 American soldiers died in April.
A total of 187 U.S. soldiers have died from hostile fire in Iraq since the U.S. declared the end of major combat operations on 1 May.
A senior U.S. officer in Iraq, General Mark Kimmitt, told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that the increased U.S. casualties are partly a result of more aggressive U.S. counterinsurgency operations. Those U.S. operations include quick-response efforts to catch guerrillas as they flee ambush sites and the pre-emptive destruction of buildings and other cover used by insurgents as operational bases.