- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

The downing of an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter shows Iraqi guerrillas are getting better organized and equipped, even as a relentless U.S. counterinsurgency eliminates more Saddam Hussein loyalists, said U.S. officials and outside analysts.

A military officer said in an interview it is becoming increasingly important to find and kill Saddam to take the air out of a guerrilla force that fights for his return to power.

“If you find and kill Saddam Hussein, I think when we do that, everything will come crashing down,” the officer said. The officer added that the attack showed some sophistication because the shooter, or shooters, likely knew the helicopter’s route and positioned themselves at an optimum launch point.

One fundamental question facing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is why, after six months of battling the guerrillas, the enemy is increasing the number of daily attacks instead of curtailing them.

Part of the answer is that Sunday’s attack is part of a new offensive timed to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Just last week, guerrillas launched a brazen rocket attack on the Rashid center-city hotel at the same time Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz stayed there.

For now, Mr. Rumsfeld and his military commanders will remain on the same strategic course: Slowly turning over more security duties to the Iraqis themselves, while winning the hearts and minds of locals so they do not join the resistance.

For the short term, the fact that the guerrillas are now organized enough to execute antiaircraft operations means the United States must adjust tactically.

Many helicopter flights will now be restricted to nighttime when it is more difficult to see a target for the heat-seeking SA-7 to lock onto. The guerrillas are thought to have access to thousands of the Soviet-designed, shoulder-fired weapons not yet confiscated by coalition forces.

In other changes, the United States may change helicopter flight paths so they are not predictable and perhaps provide gunship and surveillance escorts to spot and attack the SA-7 shooters.

After the Chinook crash, which killed 16 U.S. personnel, Mr. Rumsfeld reiterated Sunday that the way to win the war is to put more Iraqis in charge of fighting the Saddam loyalists. He also repeated his view that U.S. troop strength will decline — not increase — as locals take on more duties.

“In the last analysis the Iraqis are going to defeat the Ba’athists,” the defense secretary said. “It will be the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces that will do it and we just have to make sure we stay there and contribute to that and hopefully that’s what we’ve been doing.”

He said the number of Iraqis now qualified as police, border patrol and other security functionaries has now reached 100,000, with a goal of 200,000. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dipped 20,000 to 130,000.

U.S. officials say they are essentially in a race: Can they stabilize and rebuild Iraq at a faster pace than guerrillas can kill allies and blow up infrastructure?

Officials characterize the enemy the same way today as they did six months ago. The insurgents represent a mix of Ba’ath Party loyalists, criminals let out of prison by Saddam before the war and foreign terrorist answering the call for a jihad, or holy war, against America. Mr. Rumsfeld said the coalition is holding 200 to 300 such fighters captured on the battlefield.

But defense sources say neither Mr. Rumsfeld nor his commanders have a good handle on the size of the enemy force. The CIA believes the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq is moderate. Some commanders report few sightings of foreigners.

Yet other officials, such as chief administrator L. Paul Bremer, complain that terrorist infiltration is one of Iraq’s chief problems.

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