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Monday, June 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Iraqi attacks could signal wide revolt

BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. troops in Iraq are getting ambushed everywhere and every day — while guarding gas stations, investigating car thefts or on their way to make phone calls home.

Each new attack is raising questions about whether the violence is a last gasp from Saddam Hussein loyalists or signs of a spreading revolt. The Pentagon is puzzling over how many resisters there are, how well they are organized and how they can be stopped.

Private risk analysts are warning of an even chance of Iraq descending into open revolt.

And although the term is rarely used at the Pentagon, from every description by military officials, what U.S. troops face on the ground in Iraq has all the markings of a guerrilla war — albeit one in which there are multiple opposition groups rather than a single movement.

Certainly, the statistics paint a worrisome picture. Since President Bush declared an end to the major combat phase of the war on May 1, 62 U.S. troops have been killed, according to a count based on Defense Department press releases. Of those, 22 died as a result of enemy attacks, 36 in accidents and four in incidents whose cause is under investigation.

More revealing, however, is that the number of deaths from hostile fire is on the rise. Six Americans were killed in May in enemy attacks, while 16 had died in June as of midnight Saturday.

Until the past few days, U.S. military officials had insisted that the attacks were merely a product of the final rooting out of the remnants of Saddam's regime. Now they are beginning to float the idea that U.S. forces face several different opposition forces — and military experts outside the government concur with that assessment.

Spectrum of resistance

"There are disgruntled Iraqis, upset about house searches or whatever, who might throw rocks or the occasional grenade," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And at the other end of the spectrum, there are members of the old regime, reinforced by foreign fighters, that are looking more organized every day."

On Saturday, U.S. forces found the bodies of two U.S. soldiers who disappeared with their Humvee while on guard duty at a captured munitions storage depot. Those killings appear to have been carried out with "the upper levels of sophistication," Nash said. It is a difficult operation to snatch an enemy combatant and his equipment, he noted.

Nonlethal grenade and small-arms attacks also appear to be continuing unabated.

"We have a soldier wounded or killed every other day" in the Baghdad area, said Maj. Scott Slaten, a public-affairs officer for the 1st Armored Division, which has responsibility for Iraq's capital.

"Is it slowing us down? Yes, because some soldiers who would otherwise be doing reconstruction, we have to use for security. Every attack means we're going to have to be here a little longer."

For troops on the ground, there is a constant, uneasy sense that nothing and no one are what they seem. Civilians have approached checkpoints and lobbed grenades, and canvas-sided Humvees have become a hazard.

"You're not sure who your enemy is," said Army Sgt. Gary Qualls, who is stationed at the U.S. military's base in Ramadi, a town in the heart of the Sunni area north and west of Baghdad long loyal to Hussein. "You don't know who to trust."

Still, military officials say they believe the security situation overall has improved in the country. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when asked Friday if the fighting was turning into a guerrilla war, replied: "I don't know that I would use the word."

Asserting who's in charge

However, military experts both inside and outside the Pentagon said they fear the U.S. has failed to assert itself strongly enough on the ground in Iraq because of political pressure to send a message that American forces would leave the country as soon as possible. That may have led the opposition to try to speed the U.S. military's departure, and each successful killing or act of sabotage becomes an advertisement to recruit more foot soldiers for the resistance.

"Clearly, they are emboldened by success," said a senior military official in Washington. "You have to go in and tell them: 'We're gonna do what we did in Germany and Japan. We're gonna write your constitution. We're gonna install your government. We're gonna write your laws. We're gonna watch your every move for a decade, and then maybe you'll get a chance to do it yourself.' "

The limited resistance put up by Iraqi military forces during major combat operations may also be having an impact.

"It may sound a little strange to say it, but because we didn't fight in Fallouja and Tikrit, probably the 'bad guys' have made it back into the community and we're going to have to move them out," a senior Bush administration official said recently.

Nash, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States missed the window to establish itself as the unequivocal authority when the war ended.

"When Baghdad fell is when you establish yourself; it's when you set the rules. If you miss the opportunity to do it then, it's not impossible, but it's harder," he said. "Resistance feeds resistance — the bad guys have had a chance to get organized."

In Iraq, years of vilification of the United States have compounded Iraqi uncertainty about U.S. intentions, a problem complicated further by the United States' backtracking on promises to let Iraqis choose their own new government.

The situation is worsened by the continuing communications difficulties of the U.S.-led occupation authority, which still has trouble reaching Iraqis with basic information because of weak television signals and the limited access of many Iraqis to mass media.

Furthermore, many members of the sizable Sunni minority, who prospered under Saddam Hussein, perceive themselves as losing rather than gaining ground as a result of the U.S. presence and are willing to offer tacit, if not outright, support for those who want to actively fight the U.S.-led troops.

"The Sunni population has every reason to destabilize the situation, since they know that when there are elections, they are going to get the short end of the stick," said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Three opposition factions

At the Pentagon and the White House and among military experts, there is a growing consensus that there are at least three forces involved in efforts to destabilize the country: Saddam loyalists, foreign fighters and those angry at living conditions since U.S.-led forces routed the Saddam regime.

Discontented members of Saddam's ruling Baath party, especially in the area of central Iraq known as the Sunni triangle, have the money to finance a resistance. Also present are a number of Fedayeen, paramilitary fighters loyal to Hussein who underwent brutalizing military training designed to inure them to the horrors of assassination. The combination of money to pay for the attacks and fighters to carry them out is a dangerous mix.

There have been at least two execution-style attacks in the past two weeks in which U.S. soldiers who were talking with or helping civilian Iraqis were shot at close range near the base of the neck. In one case, in which a soldier was helping Iraqis line up to buy cooking fuel, the shooting was lethal; in the second attack, which occurred Friday as the soldier considered buying some DVD movies in a crowded shopping area, the soldier was critically wounded.

"We ended major combat operations because the Iraqi army had disappeared, but what we don't have is the Saddam Fedayeen and Baath leadership, who are trying to disrupt the coalition efforts," said a senior military official in Iraq.

Nash believes "that there is enough residual regime in place that they are starting to build a constituency."

The second group, foreign fighters, encompass both anti-American al-Qaida-type characters from Syria and Jordan, among other nations, as well as possible agents provocateurs from Iran, who may be fomenting trouble in Shiite Muslim-dominated southern Iraq. Just last week, Iraqi police in Baghdad picked up a group of Palestinians and Jordanians, now being held for questioning by the Americans.

Military officials acknowledge that they have little control of the Iraqi borders.

The third group is a hodgepodge of common criminals and people frustrated with the lack of services. Saddam released large numbers of prisoners last fall during a general amnesty.

Iraqis say the Americans should not be surprised by the violence directed toward them.

"It was predictable," said Iraqi political scientist Saad al-Jawwad. "To any man or any woman or anybody who's living in despair, what could he do? He has nothing left but to carry arms and defy the people who are here occupying his country and doing nothing for him or his family. Where is democracy? Nonexistent. Where is stability? Nonexistent. Where's electricity? Where's water?

"What do you expect these people to do? To keep on sitting like sheep?" said al-Jawwad. "Of course they would organize themselves, and they will get more organized and more organized."

"And that will develop into a revolt," he predicted.

Last week, Kroll, a U.S.-based risk consulting company, told its corporate clients that an Iraqi revolt against occupying forces was one of two most likely scenarios in 2003. The other was a so-called wobbly landing, with some instability but not outright revolt.

Material from Seattle Times news services is included in this report.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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