Evolution in Iraq's Insurgency ; Attacks on US Troops Are Down 22 Percent since January, but Some Are More Sophisticated

Article excerpt

After the lowest monthly US casualties in a year, insurgents have come back this week with widespread strikes, killing several Americans and pulling off a sophisticated attack on Abu Ghraib that showed an evolution in planning and tactics.

Attacks on US forces have dropped 22 percent since the Jan. 30 election, to about 40 a day, about the rate they were a year ago. In March, 36 US troops were killed, the lowest figure in a year, according to icasualties.org, which tracks casualties announced by the government.

But this week, four soldiers and a marine were killed - and Saturday's well-organized attack on Abu Ghraib prison, in which 40 US troops and 12 prisoners were injured, suggests that fighters may be shifting to fewer but better executed operations, including ones that directly engage US forces.

Iraq's political process will have more impact on the strength of the insurgency than any military operation. That effort got a boost Wednesday when the national assembly voted Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president. That step enables the rest of the government to be formed, a process that could take up to six weeks but is expected to be finished in the next week or so.

Despite excitement over the naming of the president, the rest of the government will have to be named quickly and produce tangible improvement in daily life if it is to erode support for the insurgency.

"Counterinsurgency is about governance," said Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an insurgency expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "You have to prove to the people you can govern them fairly and effectively - then they will tell you who the bad guys are."

Still, the insurgency's trends indicate that even at an average pace, the tough guerrilla warfare seen today is likely to continue for many years. "Don't expect solutions now. We're two years into this," Hammes says. "We're at the top of the third inning and this is a nine-inning game."

Iraqi targets

During the past few months, attacks on Iraqi forces and civilians have increased, the US military says, although they don't keep exact figures.

The trend is something Iraqi special forces soldier Ali Jabbar al- Aibi has observed from behind his truck-mounted machine gun. During his frequent nighttime operations, he is attacked almost every time.

The sense that insurgents are increasingly targeting him and his colleagues was confirmed to Mr. Aibi and his team of soldiers two weeks ago when they found a fatwa issued by a radical cleric during a raid in Samarra. It ordered jihad on Iraqi forces instead of American troops because the Iraqis are easier to attack.

Despite the increased dangers to Iraqis, the election has inspired more people to come forward with information about insurgents, says Aibi.

Those tips are prompting raids that are yielding insights on the state of the insurgents. Iraqi troops, for example, are finding fewer large weapons caches, something Aibi takes as a sign that the fighters are having supply problems.

"There's no comparison between before and now," he says, noting that they used to find stacks of dynamite, rockets, large machine guns, and mortars. "You couldn't believe it. …