Military commanders say they have a better picture today than they did a year ago of the deadly insurgency in Iraq, thanks to better intelligence collection and analysis.
The Pentagon estimates the enemy force at 12,000 to 20,000 fighters. It is a heterogenous grouping of Saddam Hussein loyalists, criminals and foreign terrorists led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi.
A Pentagon official said there are questions about how many insurgents are hard-core fighters as opposed to “fence sitters” who might participate in an attack but then lie dormant for weeks at a time.
“There are many part-timers who will quit fighting under the right conditions,” the official said.
Officials now think that criminals make up more of the insurgents than first thought, meaning many are driven by money, not ideology. And commanders are seeing more foreign fighters because fewer Iraqis are willing to commit themselves to attacks.
The suspicion that there is a large number of semicommitted insurgents was bolstered by the enemy’s failure to disrupt the Jan. 30 elections, when 8 million Iraqis went to the polls.
“The evidence suggests the insurgency has been obviously less active in the past month than it was before,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and author of several books on Islam. “It is possible to look at this and say it is weakening. But whether it’s actually defeated or broken or it might be adopting other strategies remains to be seen.”
Mr. Nasr said Jordanian and Saudi leaders are encouraging Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders to take an active role in Baghdad politics, after boycotting the elections that effectively gave the majority Shi’ites control over Iraq.
The elections, he said, were “very successful” in starting the political process and in spurring Shi’ites to join the security force “now that they are running the country.”
“But in terms of producing a government and a constitution, it has not worked,” he said. “Some of the militant groups may be adopting a wait-and-see attitude”
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told CNN this week that the elections showed that the insurgents are “not nearly as strong or as capable as some people thought they were prior to the elections.”
“Since the elections, the Iraqi security forces have gotten more involved and the Iraqi people have gotten more involved in giving us tips, telling us where insurgents are and where insurgent weapons storage sites and things like that are,” Gen. Casey said.
The four-star general said the bulk of the insurgency operates in an area of four provinces bordered by Fallujah on the west and Mosul on the northeast.
Gen. Casey and other commanders have tended to downgrade the insurgency, while intelligence officials remain more guarded.