U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed or arrested more than 50,000 Iraqi insurgents in the past seven months, a former top general who has headed repeated Pentagon assessment missions to Iraq said yesterday.
Gen. Jack Keane, a former deputy chief of staff for the Army, also said the United States has a good picture of the leadership of the vicious insurgency but less of an idea about its mid- and lower-level ranks.
“We know who they are,” he told a lunch gathering sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said the eight to 10 leaders “occasionally meet — we’ve recorded that — not just in Iraq, but in Jordan and Syria.”
Gen. Keane’s remarks provided a rare insight into the extent of U.S.-led operations against an insurgency that has been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the past few weeks alone.
Pentagon officials previously had been quoted as saying 15,000 to 16,000 Iraqis were in custody in Iraq, but spokesman Lawrence DiRita was unable to comment last night on the 50,000 figure offered by the general.
“I would highly doubt that anyone has a good handle on the numbers,” he said. “I’m not aware of what General Keane has been told, but I know of no number that has been provided to the secretary, briefed by the commanders, or is being tracked by anyone.”
Gen. Keane, noting that the numbers probably were higher now, said, “In the past six to seven months, we have killed or captured 50,000 insurgents.”
The retired general has traveled to Iraq twice in uniform and twice as a civilian to assess progress there for the U.S. military. He did not explain how the number had been obtained.
A Defense Department consultant, retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, said Gen. Keane’s figure likely includes some Iraqis who were swept up in military operations and subsequently released.
“Does that mean all of them are terrorists or still being held? Probably not. It means we are making inroads, but not that we captured 50,000 terrorists,” he said.
Many Iraqis feel that a number of innocent people have been caught up in military raids. A slow-moving judicial system and constant intimidation of judges means that a majority of those behind bars have not been tried, Gen. Keane said.
“There are thousands of people in jail who have a body of evidence against them — some should be receiving death sentences, some should be in jail for life sentences,” Gen. Keane said.
He noted that he did not know how large the insurgency was, but said that, in spite of the number of people imprisoned or killed, “we are still dealing with a rather formidable force out there.”
He also said American commanders have found it difficult to penetrate the insurgency. Despite painstaking work undertaken to sift through thousands of interrogations and field reports, a clear picture of the midlevel structure of the insurgency was hard to see.
“We have not been able to put the mosaic together to anybody’s satisfaction,” Gen. Keane said.
He added that the insurgents think they could keep up the current level of violence for about 10 years, waiting out the American forces, whom they feel will eventually leave Iraq.
Jeffrey White, former head of the Regional Military Assessments Group at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Syria was a serving as a crucial conduit and safe haven for the insurgent forces.
“Syria is critical to the insurgency — it’s the closest thing they have to a foreign base,” he said.
Mr. White, who now works at the Washington Institute, said the insurgency stretches from Syria through a wide swath of central Iraq, into seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces. He added that the level of attacks was not likely to go down anytime soon.
“There are some 60 to 65 incidents a day; [you] can expect it to continue for six months to a year, and expect further peaks as key political events unfold,” he said.
“The insurgents are a learning opponent,” he added. “These people actually know what they are doing. They do not attack randomly, and they can shift across lines of operations as they deem necessary.”