The insurgency in Iraq is showing its adaptability on the battlefield, turning a defeat in Fallujah into deadly uprisings in Mosul, Ramadi, Baqouba and other towns, defense officials say.
The Pentagon is coming to the conclusion that the anti-coalition will last for years, although not at the current level where it musters 100 attacks per day, the officials said. The real question is whether pro-U.S. Iraqi security forces will one day be able to keep the attacks at a low enough level to allow for a functioning democratic government.
“At some level, this will go on for years,” said a Defense Department adviser, who asked not to be named. “These insurgents are able to get into cities and cause problems. They’re able to do that in a wide-open country.”
U.S. Marines, Army soldiers and Iraqi security forces declared yesterday that they had conquered Fallujah, more than a week after troops invaded the city’s northern neighborhood and drove the enemy toward a blocking force on the southern outskirts.
Commanders say as many as 1,000 insurgents were killed, although Pentagon officials privately put the number in the hundreds.
Col. Michael Regner, operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah, told Reuters that at least 1,052 insurgents had been taken prisoner. Only about two dozen were from outside Iraq. Iraqi government officials have said they have found the dead bodies of Iranians, Syrians, Saudis and Sudanese inside the fallen city.
Sporadic fighting was reported on a few streets in southern Fallujah, and ground troops called in air strikes to hit buildings housing the remaining fighters.
“What you’re seeing now are some of the hard-liners,” Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, who designed the war plan for Fallujah, told the British Broadcasting Corp. “They seem to be better equipped than some of the earlier ones. We’ve seen flak jackets on some of them. But we’re more determined, and we’re going to wipe them out.”
But many insurgents escaped before the Nov. 7 assault on Fallujah, and others sprung attacks to coincide with the battle, demonstrating some degree of centralized command and control.
What troubles some Pentagon planners is the fact that cities that seemed secure suddenly became the scene of blatant terrorist attacks.
“The insurgency is like water, and when you squeeze it, it kind of goes like water,” Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander in the Persian Gulf, told reporters Sunday during a visit to Baghdad.
The Pentagon considers Fallujah the key battle in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq because the city had been used as a command center, a recruiting post and a bomb-making factory by anti-coalition Iraqis and by followers of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Zarqawi, who is believed to have escaped the city last summer, is responsible for scores of car bombings. An Islamic Web site yesterday posted an audio message it said was from the terror leader.
“Cut all their supply lines, the main and secondary ones,” said the voice, according to Agence France-Presse. “Carry out ambushes on these routes. Make sure that the initiative in the battle remains in your hands.”
Zarqawi’s foreign followers, aided by Saddam loyalists, are proving adaptable.
In Mosul, north of Baghdad, soldiers had told The Washington Times that security had progressed to the point where local security forces did most of the work, while American troops held back and watched. But during the battle for Fallujah, insurgents sprung a series of deadly attacks on police stations that required Army soldiers to re-enter the city and call for reinforcements from the south.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the top U.S. tactical commander in Iraq, had touted Baqouba as a model city where Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites co-existed.
But that city, like Mosul, erupted in violence once the Fallujah fighting started.
The victory in Fallujah, which has cost the lives of more than 38 U.S. Marines and soldiers, is seen by the Pentagon as an opening for what the military calls a “tipping point” where the tide of battle turns in the coalition’s favor.
“When we win this fight — and we will win — there will be nowhere left for the insurgents to hide,” Gen. Abizaid said Sunday outside Fallujah. “We will fight them until there are none of them left to fight.”
The possibility of a tipping point was underscored on Sunday, when three four-star generals met in Baghdad to map future strategy. The participants were Gen. Abizaid, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior U.S. general in Iraq, and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A Pentagon adviser said one topic of discussion is how to better combine brute force against the insurgents with reconstruction projects to win the hearts and minds of average Iraqis.
In a sign the insurgents know the importance of such aid, fighters attacked convoys yesterday trying to get the first shipment of reconstruction supplies to the bombed-out Fallujah.