Senior U.S. commanders say they are making progress toward defeating insurgents in Iraq, but caution that political disputes over the country's path to sovereignty could prolong or worsen security problems, according to a range of interviews with military officials.
Commanders are heartened by a sharp reduction in the number of attacks on U.S. forces and say that an overhaul of intelligence operations has produced a series of successes that have weakened the anti-occupation insurgency.
"Things have gone well both in Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of our military's ability to get the job done," Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, said in a interview at his headquarters in Qatar after a weeklong tour of the region and consultations with his commanders and the leaders of Pakistan, Jordan and Afghanistan.
But Abizaid said he was reluctant to declare victory in Iraq. "I stay away from the 'turning the corner, light at the end of the tunnel' sort of thing," he said. "There are an awful lot of political movements and activities that will take place between now and moving toward some sort of Iraqi sovereign entity, and that will put an awful lot of pressure on the system within Iraq, and that could change the security situation in dramatic ways."
Military leaders believe that their operations in Iraq are entering a critical phase. One of the biggest troop rotations in U.S. history is getting underway, creating new vulnerabilities as 130,000 seasoned soldiers depart and 105,000 fresh ones come in to replace them. Also, the planned U.S. handover of power to the Iraqi people looms in less than six months, intensifying the already volatile politics of the country.
Some military experts, including officers fighting in Iraq, continue to worry about the Iraqi insurgency, which they regard as surprisingly resilient and adaptive. Some fear that the resistance could be regrouping and planning new attacks, and is quiescent now only because it is studying the changes in the U.S. force structure and searching for new vulnerabilities. Some point out that attacks on Iraqi security forces have increased in recent months.
Defense Department statistics show a drop in U.S. troops killed in action since November, when the insurgency was at its peak. After sustaining 70 such deaths that month, the U.S. military withstood 25 in December -- the month in which former president Saddam Hussein was captured -- and 22 so far in January.
Commanders credit a number of sources for recent military advances. Three-fourths of roadside bombs are now being detected before they explode, Army officials in Iraq said. After a shaky summer marked by finger-pointing among intelligence officials about a raft of failures, especially in the coordination of data, the U.S. intelligence effort in Iraq was revamped in October and November. The overhaul has made operations much more effective, officials said.
"What we've done in the last 60 days is really taken them down," a senior military official said, speaking of the insurgency. "We've dismantled the Baghdad piece. We've dismantled the Mosul piece. I'm not saying we've taken down the Fallujah-Ramadi piece, but we've hammered it."
"The enemy doesn't have much left," a battalion commander in Tikrit said this week in assessing the current situation. "They are desperate and flailing."
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon by a video connection from Tikrit on Thursday, Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, echoed those views. He said that Hussein's capture last month marked "a major operational and psychological defeat for the enemy" and produced a rise in accurate tips from Iraqis about insurgent activity. He said that insurgents had been "brought to their knees" and reduced to a "fractured, sporadic threat."
The U.S. military's Central Command, headed by Abizaid, spent an additional $11 million on the intelligence restructuring, a senior official said, and in the process forced far greater cooperation between regular military forces, Special Operations units, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA. All those entities now use a common database that, for example, enables suspected fighters to be tracked as they move from city to city.
The overhaul's first major result is a better understanding of the networks that sustain the insurgency. Long stymied by the sophisticated, highly compartmentalized "cell structure" of Iraqi fighters, U.S. interrogators and analysts began focusing on the connections between cells, such as the means by which financing, people, weapons and training are delivered. It was this shift, the official said, that among other things led to Hussein's capture.
The political and military situation in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, is in some ways a microcosm of the U.S. situation in Iraq. The 101st Airborne Division, based in a former palace of Hussein's in Mosul, had more than two dozen of its troops killed in action during the insurgency offensive that lasted from late October to early December. But it hasn't lost a soldier in the past month.
But just as the nation's fractious politics are introducing new strains on the security apparatus, the United States is reducing its presence. In northern Iraq, the number of troops will be halved in the coming months as the 101st heads home to Fort Campbell, Ky., and is replaced by troops from the 2nd Infantry Division.
Some Army officers in Iraq urge caution in assessing the recent downturn in U.S. casualties, as well as successes against the insurgents.
One Army officer said he could "definitely verify" that attacks on the base at Balad are increasingly few and far between, "compared to last summer when they were an almost nightly occurrence." Yet he expressed worry that the enemy fighters might simply be using new tactics to disguise their operations. For example, it seemed to take U.S. military intelligence analysts months to recognize the key role that Iraqi women have played as couriers in the insurgency. "I'm always cautious asking tactical changes to carry strategic significance," this officer said.
Likewise, while roadside bombings are down, suicide car bombings continue to stymie commanders and U.S. intelligence operatives. This is becoming a strategic problem because of recent high-profile attacks on U.S. allies, including one at U.S. occupation headquarters on Sunday that killed 31 people.
U.S. intelligence officials still lack solid information on who the car bombers were but suspect they are generally disaffected young Arab men from outside Iraq. Aside from that, they say, foreign fighters are not playing a large role in the broader insurgency.
But even if the U.S. solves those military issues, experts say, the security equation remains subordinate to the political process. "We are doing better in military terms, but that has little to do with politics -- and in the end it's all about politics," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dale Davis, a specialist on Middle Eastern military and intelligence issues.
An Army officer at the civilian occupation authority agreed, saying that "the main effort in a counterinsurgency is political, economic and social. The military is a supporting effort; its role is to buy time."
Political pressure is likely to grow in the coming months as Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds vie for power in post-occupation Iraq. The most immediate worry is that recent street demonstrations by Shiites in support of calls for elections by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani might turn unruly.
'Disgruntled with other issues'
"I worry that the recent street demonstrations in support of Sistani and direct elections could turn into widespread anti-American and anti-Governing Council demonstrations by Iraqis disgruntled with other issues -- no jobs, heat, power, chickens, Mercedes," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst for Iraqi affairs. She doubts whether the U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies could keep a lid on large-scale demonstrations that have the potential to turn into riots.
After spending the past six months creating the rank and file of Iraqi security and police forces, U.S. military officials say their next big challenge is to swiftly develop Iraqi leaders for those new organizations.
A new effort is underway to establish command structures at the local, regional and national levels that will eventually allow Iraqis to take over most security functions from U.S.-led forces. Police and other security units ultimately will be commanded by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, while military forces will be overseen by a ministry of defense that doesn't yet exist, but which Abizaid said would be established soon.
U.S. commanders "will be reluctant to want to turn over some of that control to forces that aren't as capable, and who are under the control of institutions that aren't yet mature," Abizaid said. "Yet that's precisely a risk that we're going to have to take in the next year, and that's worth taking."