Friday, September 16, 2005

The Pentagon this week put on display two hardened Army colonels whose messages provided both hope and unease about America’s prospects of winning soon in Iraq.

Both Cols. H.R. McMaster and Robert Brown were upbeat about their soldiers’ battlefield victories in northwest Iraq against concentrations of vicious foreign terrorists under the direction of Abu Musab Zarqawi. And they testified to a much improved Iraqi Security Forces. Iraqi troops must one day take on the lion’s share of counterinsurgency missions if U.S. forces are to leave Iraq.

“We conducted very effective combat operations against the enemy, we being the Iraqi Security Forces and our forces,” said Col. McMaster, describing how the coalition fought street-by-street to take control of the northern town of Tal Afar. He said his coalition force of 8,500 soldiers killed and captured hundreds, including top aides to Zarqawi.

A day later, Col. Brown, who commands a brigade of Stryker armored vehicles, said, “One of the great pieces of information we got recently is 80 percent of the al Qaeda network in the north has been devastated.”

He said that during his year in Iraq, the foreign invaders had become younger and were poorly trained. He said his brigade killed 500 enemy in several months of fighting last winter.

But Col. McMaster, in a press conferences via video link to the Pentagon from Iraq, also provided some troubling facts about an insurgency that never seems to shrink or lose its ability to kill scores of people.

Tal Afar, a dusty town between the Syrian border and the large city of Mosul, showed that when insurgents are rooted out of one safe haven, as they were in Fallujah last November, they collect in a new town over time.

U.S. soldiers found a well-entrenched enemy. Former military officers in the regime of Saddam Hussein had joined forces with Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists. “You have this melding together of an extremist enemy with a significant amount of military experience,” Col. McMaster said.

The enemy had formed a varied network of cells, each with its own mission, such as propaganda, indoctrination, kidnappings and murders, mortar and snipers. Col. McMaster called it “this very well-developed enemy structure.”

They quickly set up sessions to teach newly arriving jihadists how to build improvised explosive devices. The town’s young people were herded into classrooms to be radicalized.

History shows that once evicted from Tal Afar, the terrorists will seek a new safe area in some other small town not guarded by coalition troops. “They’re going to try to figure out ways to come back and re-establish this intimidation campaign,” Col. McMaster said. “But we’re not going to let them do it.”

Col. Brown disclosed that his forces confiscated a letter from Zarqawi aide Abu Zaid after killing him recently. The colonel said the Zaid letter, meant for Zarqawi, said al Qaeda in Iraq was in a “desperate situation” in the north.

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