Monday, November 17, 2003

Iraqi resistance fighters in just six months have gone from loose-knit bands of Saddam Hussein followers to organized cells that communicate with each other and carefully pick bombing targets to drive a wedge into the U.S.-led coalition.

The fighters have created ties with pro-Saddam cells around the country using cell phones, word of mouth, messengers and spies inside Iraqi units set up by American forces, Bush administration officials said.

One tactic, the use of roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), has proven among the most deadly. The Iraqi guerrillas are using cell phones in some cases to set them off. They take the ringing mechanism of one cell phone and hook it to the IED’s detonator. They use another cell phone to dial the gutted phone’s number and hit Send when a U.S. convoy passes within range.

The clearest sign of an organized anti-U.S. force came last month. In quick succession, the guerrillas launched suicide bombings designed to discourage international players in Iraq from aiding the United States. The targets included the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations headquarters and the International Red Cross. Last week, the attacks went south to Nasiriyah, where a truck bomb killed 18 Italians, most of them peacekeepers.

“What shows growing connectivity is the first decision to go after the Jordanian Embassy,” said a defense official. “The U.N. hit represents a decision to get a little more sophisticated than to just go after Americans.”

This official said many of those in the resistance come from Saddam’s brutal security apparatus, which included the Special Security Organization, the Special Republican Guard and the particularly vicious Fedayeen, gangs of street thugs recruited by one of Saddam’s sons. Before the war, these units worked closely with each other.

“Getting back in touch with each other is not that hard to do,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. “You have friends of friends and you have family ties.”

After Baghdad fell April 9 and the insurgency took root, Bush administration officials repeatedly said attacks came from disorganized bands of Saddam loyalists

Referring to the insurgents, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in June: “They’re all slightly different in why they’re there and what they’re doing. That doesn’t make it anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance. It makes it like five different things going on that are functioning much more like terrorists.”

Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands the 4th Infantry Division based in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, offered the same analysis five months ago: “I believe it’s along the line of street gangs right now,” he said.

Today, with the U.S. death toll nearing 50 in the first half of November, top commanders acknowledge that the enemy has become smarter and more coordinated, although not larger.

The Ba’athists’ evolving sophistication prompted Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to adopt more aggressive tactics. His forces are bombing structures used by Saddam’s fighters to meet and plot. Before, the buildings would be raided but not destroyed.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, who as head of U.S. Central Command oversees the entire Iraq operation, conceded last week that the resistance “is organized. It is organizing. It’s organizing better.”

He added: “I believe that there is some level of coordination that’s taken place at very high levels. … I believe that most of the action has taken place at a regional level, where there are strong indications of collusion between the Ba’athists, some of the extremist groups and even some of the terrorist groups.”

But he flatly rejected the opinion of one of his commanders that Saddam planned the resistance before the allied invasion in March. “I think Saddam Hussein is one of the most incompetent military leaders in the history of the world,” Gen. Abizaid said. “And to give him any credit, to think that somehow or other he planned this is absolutely beyond my comprehension.”

He said he believes Saddam is alive and remains in Iraq.

The military estimates the number of resistance fighters at no more than 5,000, including about 200 foreign fighters.

Many attacks are carried out by criminals released from prison by Saddam before the war. “In most of the cases of direct-fire engagements that our troops have, they find very young, out-of-work young men that have been paid to attack our forces,” the general said.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told The Washington Times in an interview last week that some foreign fighters are being trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. They then travel to Syria and infiltrate Iraq.

One major factor aiding the guerrillas is the ready-made source of arms. Iraq was essentially a large ammo dump. Military bases, private homes and government buildings are filled with rockets, surface-to-air missiles, guns, ammunition, mortar shells and explosives. Cache by cache, U.S. soldiers are finding and destroying the arms.

“That ammo is starting to be difficult for them to obtain in certain areas,” Gen. Abizaid said.

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