WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - One month after the capture of Saddam Hussein, a stubborn insurgency continues against U.S. forces, fueled by foreign fighters and Iraqis angry about economic hardships and bitter about the American-led occupation, according to military officers, regional analysts and Iraqi exiles.
Officers in Iraq and analysts agree that Hussein's arrest has helped corral some top officials from his Baath Party who were helping coordinate and fund attacks on Americans.
But they said other elements involved in the insurgency have no ties to the former Iraqi leader. These observers fear that the various opponents could unite and spark a nationwide movement. And though the average number of daily attacks has dropped, car bombings and hostile fire continue. Yesterday, enemy ground fire brought down the third U.S. military helicopter in two weeks.
"Saddam Hussein's capture is important, but I don't think it will put an end to the insurgency," said Phebe Marr, a longtime U.S. scholar of Iraq. "Regrettably, I've come to the conclusion that [ending the insurgency] is going to take a long time."
The number of American dead in Iraq is approaching 500. As of yesterday, 495 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in March, according to the Defense Department. Of those, 343 died as a result of hostile action and 152 died of nonhostile causes, the department said.
U.S. officials note that the average weekly attacks against American and coalition troops in Iraq have decreased since the capture of Hussein on Dec. 13. From Dec. 7 through Dec. 13, there were 150 attacks on coalition forces, a figure that dropped to 82 for all of last week, said a U.S. military official in Baghdad.
L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, said yesterday that the arrest of Hussein "has made an important difference." It has produced better intelligence about the insurgency, he said, echoing comments by senior military officers in Iraq.
Moreover, the American administration is finding more support among the "fence sitters" in the country, who were waiting to see whether Hussein would return to power, Bremer said on NBC's Today show.
The country's continued poor economic conditions and heavy-handed tactics of the U.S. military in hunting down the insurgents - from kicking down doors and inspecting women's bedrooms to dragging away suspects with bags over their heads - are broadening contempt for the U.S.-led occupation among Iraqis, Marr said. Such feelings could prolong or expand anti-American activity, she added.
"Capturing Saddam only affected one part of that" insurgency, said Steven Metz, director of research for the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College. "His capture wasn't really going to derail the thing."
Metz termed the insurgency a "multi-headed snake" united by opposition to the U.S. occupation, pointing to foreign Muslim extremists, the jobless in Iraq and the increasingly angry elements of the majority Shiite community in the country, who are balking at an American-initiated plan for caucuses that would choose a new government this summer. Shiite leaders are pressing for direct elections as soon as possible.
"The only thing that really, really frightens me is the potential radicalization of the Shia community," said Metz.
'It's not one enemy'
A ranking Army officer who just returned from four months in Iraq agreed that capturing Hussein helped roll up some senior Baathists and that it was clear the one-time dictator had a hand in some insurgent attacks. Still, the officer said, "It's not one enemy. You have multiple, many different enemies. It doesn't lend itself to a silver bullet, 'Let's capture Saddam.'"
Both the officer, who declined to be identified by name, and Metz said aggressive tactics by U.S. forces in rooting out insurgents could backfire against civilians and others caught up in the operations.
Moreover, the officer said he feared the possible consequences of the planned rotation of 110,000 U.S. active and reserve troops into Iraq this spring. Green troops unfamiliar with the local population, power structure and culture could lead to deadly missteps that would exacerbate tensions, he said.
For example, he noted that in September soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division mistakenly shot and killed nine Iraqi policemen in Fallujah, inflaming the Sunni residents in the city west of Baghdad. The soldiers had been in the city only one day and were in the midst of a handover from one unit to another. "Terrorists exploit our inability to be sensitive to the local population," the officer said. "When you have a [rotation of forces], you see that." Some of the attacks on U.S. forces are simply "revenge" for the tactics of some American soldiers, he said.
The Marine Corps, which will send thousands of troops from the 1st Marine Division into western Iraq this spring, hopes to avoid such problems. The division is training at Camp Pendleton in California to use less force and to be more culturally sensitive, officers said.
At the same time, some U.S. military officers and Iraqi exiles who recently returned to their homeland fault the widespread de-Baathification policy ordered by both Bremer and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. About 30,000 party members have been fired, officials said, and as many as 28,000 more might be losing their jobs as teachers, bureaucrats and engineers.
The additional job losses, they predict, will further erode the security situation.
A senior officer, who also spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name, said Baathists who have been purged from their government jobs have no means of supporting their families and no incentive to support the American-led occupation.
While the Iraqi Governing Council has pledged to allow some low-level party members to be reinstated or appeal for pensions, the officer said the council is moving at "glacial speed" and doubts there is any interest in accommodating the Baathists. Indeed, one council member, Ahmed Chalabi, told reporters this week that the Baathists were a "criminal party" and that the job losses could not compare to the brutality of the Hussein regime and the millions who lost their lives.
But Thair Nakib, an Iraqi Sunni exile who lived in the Baltimore area before returning to Iraq late last year, said many of his countrymen joined the Baath Party only for a job. "The majority were not criminals," said Nakib in a telephone interview from Baghdad. "De-Baathification went too far. From my point of view, it's a mistake."
As part of that de-Baathification policy, Bremer decided in May to disband the 400,000-member Iraqi Army, which Nakib and many analysts say was among the greatest post-war missteps. The former soldiers should have been put to use at the borders with Syria and Iran, keeping foreign fighters from entering Iraq, he said.
Purge too rapid
U.S. and Iraqi officials continue to rebuild the country's security force, which includes police, army and border guards and numbers about 160,000, Pentagon officials say.
Marr, the Iraq scholar, said purging the Baathists was necessary but should have been done more slowly. Also, she said, there must be a way to bring all Iraqi groups into the political structure.
Both Marr and Metz said that the United States needs to bring all its resources to bear not only to improve the security situation but also to rebuild the economy. "We have to do all these things together," said Marr. "We're talking years here."
One senior military officer in northern Iraq said money approved by Congress last year is being used for reconstruction projects. Such efforts will produce jobs and improve security, the officer said, because employed people are more likely to come forward with information about insurgents.
Nakib, the Iraqi Sunni exile, said he agreed that the insurgency is growing among Iraqi nationalists and those vowing revenge in the wake of "heavy-handed" actions by some American soldiers. At the same time, he praised the reconstruction work of Bremer's staff, though American military officers complain that the Coalition Provisional Authority has little presence outside Baghdad and is not moving fast enough on economic projects.
Nakib recently accompanied some CPA officials through Salah Aldin province in the Sunni triangle and saw their plans for building schools and hospitals.
"These kinds of things will help a lot," predicted Nakib. "They will stop the violence."