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U.S. view of Iraq insurgency shifting

Senior U.S. commanders say their view of the Iraqi insurgency has begun to shift, with higher priority being given to combating foreign fighters and Iraqi jihadists.
Iraqi police arrive after a car bomb exploded in a Baghdad neighborhood Saturday, killing at least six people.
Iraqi police arrive after a car bomb exploded in a Baghdad neighborhood Saturday, killing at least six people.Mohammed Hato / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Senior U.S. commanders say their view of the Iraqi insurgency has begun to shift, with higher priority being given to combating foreign fighters and Iraqi jihadists.

This shift comes in response to the recent upsurge in suicide attacks and other developments that indicate a more prominent role in the insurgency by these radical groups, the commanders say.

Previously, U.S. authorities have depicted the insurgency as being dominated largely by what the Pentagon has dubbed "former regime elements" -- a combination of onetime Baath Party loyalists and Iraqi military and security service officers intent on restoring Sunni rule. But since the Jan. 30 elections, this segment of the insurgency has appeared to pull back from the fight, at least for a while, reassessing strategies and exploring a possible political deal with the new government, senior U.S. officers here say.

Acting on the assumption that foreign fighters and Iraqi extremists may now pose the greater and more immediate threat to security in Iraq, U.S. commanders have given orders in recent days to reposition some U.S. ground forces and intelligence assets in northwestern Iraq to further fortify the border with Syria and block suspected infiltration routes. They are also stepping up efforts to go after leading bomb-makers and key organizers of the suicide attacks.

In interviews, several commanders and intelligence officers cautioned that their shift was still tentative and based more on fragmentary information and intuition than on solid, specific evidence. They said assessments differ among U.S. intelligence specialists.

But the officers said the impression that a harder-core insurgent element has become more important is supported by the increase in suicide missions and the greater ruthlessness of the attacks, many of which have been positioned and timed to kill civilians as well as Iraqi security forces. U.S. and Iraqi authorities say suicide drivers are invariably foreign fighters. Officers here said they knew of no documented case in which a suicide attacker turned out to have been an Iraqi.

A recent U.S. intelligence estimate also shows an increase last month in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, according to several officers familiar with it.

"There seems to be an increasing foreign element to the insurgency," said Army Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

‘Fairly competent terrorist base’
With Baathist-led Sunni groups appearing to sit on the sidelines for now, some senior officers say the insurgency seems to have shrunk as its tactics have become more vicious.

"The base of the insurgency is getting very narrow, but it is still a fairly competent terrorist base," said one commanding officer on condition of anonymity.

The generals allow for the possibility that the apparent change in the nature of the insurgency may be only temporary. They noted, for instance, that a failure to draw the Sunnis into the new political process could again drive the Baathists into more violent opposition.

"They may have just taken a pause," said Army Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III, the top military intelligence officer in Iraq. "I'm not sure they've quit the insurgency. They can certainly come back."

Even with the reported rise in foreign fighters, several senior officers said, the number estimated to be coming into the country each month is still relatively small -- in the neighborhood of several score. In numerical terms, they said, the insurgency remains essentially homegrown. Iraqi members of extremist Islamic factions, such as the Ansar al Sunna Army, continue to account for many insurgent attacks.

But in terms of overall effect, the foreign fighters who serve as suicide bombers and cause high casualties are having a disproportionate impact, the officers said. The most prominent foreign fighter -- Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi -- has become Iraq's best-known insurgent, leading a network that has asserted responsibility for some of the bloodier attacks.

Like Zarqawi, a number of foreign fighters are said to be forming tactical partnerships with Iraqi extremist groups to carry out attacks. Though foreigners may drive the suicide cars, Iraqis are frequently behind the scenes operating the networks that provide safe houses, assemble the explosives and arrange other support.

The number of car bombings jumped from 64 in February to 135 in April, according to U.S. military statistics. The proportion of such attacks involving a suicide driver also soared, from about 25 percent to just over 50 percent.

‘Their precision weapon’
"The car bomb has become the weapon of choice for these guys, it's their precision weapon," another general here said.

Overall, the rate of attacks has climbed from about 30 to 40 a day in February and March to an average of about 70 a day now, by the U.S. military's count.

The main infiltration route into Iraq for foreign fighters continues to be through Syria, the officers here said. Citing terrorist Web sites that advertise for recruits in such countries as Sudan, Libya and Saudi Arabia, the officers said the fighters tended to be flown to Damascus, the Syrian capital, where they were met by facilitators and moved across the border into Iraq.

The spate of car bombings has prompted U.S. commanders to put renewed emphasis on interdicting infiltrators near the border and uncovering bomb-making networks inside Iraq. But commanders are still debating how much to refocus U.S. military operations on the more radical elements of the insurgency.

"Do you focus the preponderance of effort on the former regime elements, or do you shift the targeting effort to another part of the insurgency? That's what people are grappling with right now," said DeFreitas, the intelligence officer.

With the recent rise in attacks, U.S. commanders acknowledge that some of the momentum gained from January's election has been lost. But they say they still hope to make enough progress containing the insurgency and building up Iraqi security forces this year to allow for a significant reduction in U.S. troops early next year. A formal assessment of the progress toward that end is scheduled for next month.