- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The outcome of the first reported battle since the end of major combat operations in Iraq suggests victory may be closer than most Americans dare to hope.

Iraqis wearing the black garb of the Fedayeen Saddam ambushed two convoys carrying cash to banks in Samarra, a small town in the Sunni Triangle about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. The attacks were well planned and coordinated. The attackers were brave. The attackers died like flies.

The U.S. military claims 54 of an estimated 80 attackers were killed.

Another eight were taken prisoner. U.S. casualties were six wounded, most of them lightly. “Coalition firepower overwhelmed the attackers,” Master Sgt. Robert Cargie of the 4th Infantry Division told the New York Times.

The engagements in Samarra make it plain the the guerrillas are unable successfully to mount even platoon-size actions against U.S. forces. Why did they attempt it?

Martin Sieff of UPI thinks it was a premature escalation based on rising confidence. “The attacks took place in a predominantly Sunni city and their scale reflects the confidence and rapid learning curve of the guerrillas,” Mr. Sieff wrote. “After inflicting about 80 dead on U.S. forces in November, they felt confident enough to attempt a far more ambitious kind of operation.”

But because seeking a standup fight with the U.S. military is a stupid thing to do, Stratfor, a private intelligence service, thinks the attacks more likely were motivated by desperation. “The Iraqi guerrillas realize they are running out of time,” Stratfor said. “The U.S.-Kurdish-Shi’ite alliance is becoming operational and the guerrillas’ read of the political landscape is that they are about to be caught between a rock and a hard place. In addition, the guerrillas understand that their resources are limited and that attrition, over time, plays against them.”

The U.S. military a month ago estimated the strength of the opposition at about 5,000. The rule of the thumb for the last half-century has been that a counterinsurgent force needs a 20-1 numerical advantage to succeed. The United States has 130,000 troops in Iraq, and there is a like number in the various Iraqi security forces, and 20,000 more allied troops, a ratio of about 56 to 1. In addition, all that is required to expand the Iraqi security forces by about another 100,000 is time.

The guerrillas need to kill at least 50 members of the security forces for each casualty they take, just to stay even. But it’s going the other way.

President Bush reportedly has been told that since Operation Iron Hammer began a month ago, nearly 1,100 Iraqi guerrillas have been captured or killed. If this is true, then we’ve inflicted 15 casualties on the guerrillas for each death we’ve suffered. That is not an exchange rate the enemy can sustain for long.

The Viet Cong were able to take horrendous casualties and keep on fighting mostly because of an endless supply of reinforcements from North Vietnam.

There is no North Vietnam to back up Saddam, and the Ba’athist remnant is much less popular among Iraqis than the Viet Cong were among the Vietnamese.

Though small scale infiltration into Iraq by al Qaeda types is impossible to prevent, there is no way for the guerrillas to replace the bulk of their losses with new recruits, and there is no way such new recruits as can be found will possess the skills of those killed or captured.

The Saddamites can hold down their losses by sticking to hit-and-run sniping, punctuated by the occasional suicide bombing. But the Ramadan offensive has not had the strategic effect they had hoped. Public opinion in the U.S. has not turned against the war. Despite the attacks on the Italians and the Spanish, no U.S. ally has left the fight.

If the guerrillas think hit-and-run terrorism is insufficient to keep their strategic situation from worsening, there will be more attacks like that in Samarra, and that will hasten the Saddamites’ doom.

“The larger the guerrilla formation involved, the higher the intensity of fighting, and the longer the engagement, the better for the United States,” Stratfor said. “If the guerrillas believe they must up the ante now, the guerrillas are in trouble.”

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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