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Under Fire in Baghdad

From the November 10, 2003 issue: Distinguishing foe from foe.

Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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If military officials can't agree on the number of foreign fighters, there is no disputing that they have become increasingly effective. The four simultaneous bombings in Baghdad on October 27--the headquarters of the International Red Cross and three police stations--had classic al Qaeda characteristics. The attackers used 1,000 lbs. of plastic explosives and sent decoy vehicles ahead of the trucks carrying the bombs. The terrorists who bombed a housing complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 12, 2003, employed similar tactics.

The attack on the al Rashid, however, is believed to have been the work of former regime loyalists. So, too, are most of the attacks on coalition troops. Shortly after the war, the military recorded attacks at a rate of about 12 per day. That number has tripled--now averaging 36 per day.

In Tikrit, the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle where most of these attacks take place, Odierno briefed the delegation on the nature of the threat. In that region, 20 to 30 percent of the Iraqi population is actively cooperating with coalition forces--meaning that they work for security forces or otherwise provide intelligence about who is resisting. Another 10 percent, says Odierno, actively oppose the coalition. And only a small fraction of those actually conduct the attacks. "The vast majority is indifferent," he says, though some "60 percent hate the old regime."

Those numbers tell only part of the story. President Bush was roundly mocked last week for claiming that the increased attacks are a sign of progress. If that argument seems counterintuitive, it's similar to one you hear from soldiers here all the time. "The resistance," they say, "targets our successes." But at some point, of course, for the successes to continue the attacks must decrease.

If the more-attacks-equals-success logic doesn't quite work, there are reasons to be optimistic about the changing nature of the incidents. First, the targets chosen are increasingly "soft," or easy to attack. The International Red Cross, with little more than sandbags as security precautions, was one of the softest targets in Baghdad. (The attack on the al Rashid, a harder target inside a secured zone, was an exception to this trend.) Second, the insurgents are increasingly targeting Iraqi civilians. "Half of the violence now is not directed at us," says one officer in the Sunni Triangle. "It's been redirected at the population. This is a big change." As Iraqis themselves become victims of terrorism, the ambivalent majority in the Sunni Triangle is beginning to take sides against the terror.

Third, the anti-American forces are having to pay their mercenaries more. Shortly after the war, Iraqis could earn $200-$500 for each attack on coalition forces. Today, those same attacks are costing the terrorists $5,000. And the insurgents aren't paying just for attacks. The military has intelligence indicating the three largest anti-American factions--FRLs, foreign fighters, and Iraqis affiliated with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr--all have to part with significant sums of cash just to stage a protest. Participants in anti-American rallies earn $50. Such tactics may work while half of the Iraqi populace is unemployed. But as electricity comes back on line and jobs become more plentiful, fewer and fewer Iraqis will be wooed by such financial incentives.

AT BREAKFAST EARLY SATURDAY MORNING, I ran Odierno's breakdown by three young soldiers inhaling eggs, bacon, and French toast. Televisions in the background were tuned to ESPN. It was halftime of the Los Angeles Lakers game. As these young men prepared for another day of manning a checkpoint near an opulent palace, their friends back in the United States were probably swilling beers at a bar.

Two of the soldiers had been in Iraq since April and seemed relaxed as they related their experiences. The third had arrived a week earlier. Although we were well inside a heavily fortified perimeter, he was wearing his flak jacket as he ate his cereal. No one else was. He didn't appear scared, really, just wide-eyed and new.

The three soldiers largely agreed with Odierno's analysis of the population in their area of responsibility. I asked them if they felt threatened on a daily basis. Not really.

"But it can be tough sometimes," one of the soldiers volunteered before excitedly launching into a story of an attack that had taken place two nights earlier. "We were manning the checkpoint and heard gunfire nearby. We weren't sure whether it's coming at us or if it's us shooting at them. Then, all of a sudden, we see a civilian [an Iraqi] come running at us out of the darkness. Hang on--"

His commanding officer stopped and whispered something in the soldier's ear. He gave me a chastened look and, after his superior left, ran his finger across his neck. "That's it," he said. "Sorry."

After breakfast, we visited a training session of the Iraqi Civilian Defense Corps (ICDC). The group, more than police but not quite an Iraqi Army, is helping coalition troops go after insurgents. There were 20 of them gathered on a dusty field next to their makeshift classroom. Those in training were dressed in bright green, one-piece jumpsuits, which they wore with evident pride. As Wolfowitz and his entourage strolled past, the Iraqis stuck out their chins and stiffened their backs. They stood at attention--no doubt coached by their American trainers--afraid to twitch lest they stand out to the visiting dignitary. When instructed, they belted out their initials with deafening enthusiasm. "I-C-D-C!"

An American trainer began to put two ICDC recruits through the paces of a confrontation with the enemy. If done correctly, once the Iraqis face the enemy, they are to stagger their approach. One soldier will run forward, drop to the ground and provide cover to his partner, who once his partner is in position, runs forward, drops to the ground, and returns the favor.

Two Iraqis in green suits walked forward slowly, with a seriousness about them that suggested they might actually confront an enemy on the premises. Suddenly, the instructor shouted out a warning. "Enemy!" But rather than execute the plan laid out for them in English, through a translator, the two ICDC recruits jogged forward together and begin making the staccato "bup, bup, bup, bup, bup" noise that indicates they're shooting. The frustrated American trainer rushed forward and pushed one of the Iraqis to the ground. The other Iraqi, surprised to learn that they hadn't successfully executed the drill, looked bewildered but kept up his pretend shooting. "Bup, bup, bup, bup," he said more slowly, at this point not even looking in the direction he was "firing."

The American soldier quickly ended the botched drill. The Iraqis, through a translator, were told what they had done wrong and looked embarrassed. After a brief review of the proper tactics, they were given a second chance. This time, it was perfect and they were brought to Wolfowitz for a chat.

He asked one of the soldiers about the training. "The training is good. The only thing we want to change is the uniform," he said, pointing to the tan one-piece suit worn by an Iraqi who had completed training. "This is the uniform of the old regime."

Captain Jason Deel, in charge of this ICDC training program, says that a near riot broke out when the recruits were told that they would have to wear the uniforms worn by the old Iraqi Army. "They are not happy about it," he says.

Wolfowitz asked the Iraqi soldier if there is anything else he needed. "Maybe a pistol for when we go home" each night.

The ICDC is one small part of the rapidly expanding Iraqi security forces. Since June 1, according to Wolfowitz, some 86,000 Iraqis have begun working with the coalition on one aspect or another of the security situation. Intense training of new recruits continues throughout the country.

Deel has trained 62 ICDC soldiers thus far. They have begun to operate in and around Tikrit, yielding what the Americans here have characterized as "a windfall of intelligence." Lt. Col. Steve Russell explains: "They can go into homes of average Iraqis and talk and we cannot. They can go into mosques, places we do not go. They can communicate instantly. That's something we cannot do--translating takes time. They gather information from friends and peers. Iraqis feel confident about cooperating with them."

Deel says placing ICDC soldiers at checkpoints has already proved fruitful. "They can see a truck coming down the road and say, 'Stop that truck. It's stolen,' and sure enough, we'll stop it and the driver will have no ID. We'll investigate and find out later that [it] was stolen."

Coalition officials say this kind of intelligence will be the key to improving security in Iraq. Late last week, coalition officials said they had learned through several tips that a former top-ranking official of Saddam Hussein's regime was coordinating the attacks with Islamic fundamentalists. Former vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, No. 6 on the most wanted list, is believed to be running large parts of the insurgency.

That's a curious development. Most of the contacts between the former regime and Ansar al Islam and al Qaeda had been handled by another of Saddam's vice presidents, Taha Yasin Ramadan. Administration officials are unsure if Ibrahim is building on that relationship or starting anew.

Either way, if the new intelligence is accurate, it may help explain why so many coalition officials in Iraq have described in recent weeks an increase in the coordination and effective execution of the attacks. And most important, the revelation may begin to provide an answer to the crucial question that has vexed the coalition since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

Who, exactly, are we fighting?

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.