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April 14, 2004

This bit can cut both ways.

Washington Post April 14, 2004 Pg. 1

Insurgents Display New Sophistication

Campaign Leaves Bridges Heavily Damaged, Hampering Military's Push South

By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writer

FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq, April 13 -- Insurgents fighting the U.S.-led occupation force have sharply increased the sophistication, coordination and aggressiveness of their tactics over the past week, Army officers and soldiers involved in combat here said.

Most dramatically, as several thousand U.S. troops pushed south this week from the Baghdad area to this new base in central Iraq, one highway bridge on their planned route was destroyed and two others were so heavily damaged that they could not be used by heavy Army trucks and armored vehicles.

Those attacks on convoy routes, which U.S. forces were using for the first time, revealed a previously unseen degree of coordination among insurgent groups, said Army Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, the commander of a brigade-size task force now assembling for possible combat operations against the forces of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr in or near the holy city of Najaf.

Go Dana! (Yeah, I know him) This is both bad and good news. Bad news in that they are feeling bold, or desperate, enough to start fighting like this in a stand-up fashion. Good, in that in this, they are starting to fight our way - which means they are playing to our strong hand.

The real danger here is the Cronkite Factor, of winning the combat but losing the more important agitprop war... which this nation hasn't been good at, internally and externally.

"The dropping of the bridges was very interesting, because it showed a regional or even a national level of organization," Pittard said in an interview. He said insurgents appeared to be sending information southward, communicating about routes being taken by U.S. forces and then getting sufficient amounts of explosives to key bridges ahead of the convoys.

With occupation forces battling Sadr's Shiite militiamen south and east of Baghdad and Sunni Muslim insurgents to the north and west, the timing of the Iraqis' tactical development is nearly as troubling for U.S. forces as its effect. But the explanation for the change is not yet clear, military commanders said.

Here in southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, U.S. officers say the best guess is that former soldiers who served under President Saddam Hussein have decided to lend their expertise and coordinating abilities to the untrained Shiite militiamen.

Here's where you would like to be a fly on the wall. Is it because they've decided that a new government not under their control is just too much of a threat, and they are fighting for survival (a good spin)? Or, they perceive that the US political resolve is weakening and that there is a window of opportunity to wrest political victory from the jaws of military defeat, as the North Vietnamese did? We know which side the antis are taking here.

"It's a combination of Saddam loyalists and Shiite militias," Maj. Gen. John R. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said in a brief interview here at FOB Duke, where he was reviewing combat preparations.

Batiste said the influence of former Iraqi Republican Guard officers was especially apparent in the fighting in the Sunni town of Fallujah, where, he said, many veteran officers made their homes. "You could staff a division with the Iraqi officers living there," he said.

Based on previous combat performance, you'd think not a very good division... except these are the guys who did a credible job of fighting the Iranians in the two-dimensional war that they fought in the 80's. Two dimensional in that air power wasn't that big a factor. And in the current fighting, unlike OIF and Desert Storm, air power isn't the dominant player it was. We can't afford to blow everything up as we're trying to rebuild - which means that the bad guys have neutralized several key advantages of ours, and now we have to rely even more heavily on the quality of our troops. And it starts to really beg the question: are there enough? I don't have the privilege of sitting in on the big guy's briefings and strategy sessions - but from where I sit - there aren't enough. It's telling that there are elements of three US divisions comprising the 2,500 troops involved in this. In some respects, it simply reflects the aspects of modularity that we're trying to implement as a part of new doctrine - on the other side, it's simply making a virtue of necessity, as we arguably don't have enough forces in theater.

The politics of this make my head hurt. But we are, I think, in great danger of slipping into Lyndon Johnson's fatal mistake with Vietnam - not willing to treat it as a full-blown war and ask the public to step up to the plate. That's a tough job for a war leader in a democracy when the barbarians aren't at the gates. We beneficiaries of representative democracy really prefer to not be bothered until it's too late - and for too many people, 9/11 is slipping from memory.

What officers here say they are not seeing is a sharp increase in the number of foreign guerrillas involved in the fighting. That element, said Pittard, is tiny -- perhaps "about 2 percent."

That's a good thing, thus far. It means the resources they can draw on are finite.

One of Pittard's combat engineers noted that several hundred pounds of explosive material and a fair degree of expertise were required to destroy a span on a major highway bridge. Several Army convoys moving south to this base -- the task force commanded by Pittard includes elements of the 1st Infantry Division, 2nd Infantry Division and 25th Infantry Division -- were delayed by more than 12 hours by the operations against the bridges, which Pittard called "irritating" but not a major problem.

That's Dana alright.

In a separate ambush east of Najaf, a group of fighters suspected to be part of Sadr's militia let a group of six U.S. armored vehicles pass their position, then placed obstacles across the highway behind them, cutting off their line of retreat. The armored vehicles were forced to move forward across a bridge. While they were on the bridge approaching a police checkpoint, Iraqi fighters, some of them wearing police uniforms, began firing on them. No U.S. troops were hurt in the incident.

Gotta respect that plan. They are reading their books and taking it seriously. Something they didn't seem to do before. This suggests that cooler heads are prevailing and the ill-disciplined hotheads are either losing power or are fertilizer. We're seeing signs of the Darwin Combat Calculus.

The new assertiveness of the anti-U.S. fighters was displayed further later that day on the outskirts of Baqubah, where dozens of RPG-toting fighters confronted a platoon of four Bradley Fighting Vehicles, according to a 1st Infantry Division after-action report. "The platoon was literally surrounded by the enemy," the report said. One U.S. soldier and about 20 Iraqis were killed in the encounter, the report said.

"More and more, they're starting to stand and shoot," said Sgt. Maj. John Fourhman, the top enlisted soldier in the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade. "Before, they just ran."

It's turning into a battle of wills. And that's where we lost to the North Vietnamese. Now we'll find out who has the best assessment of the mettle of the American people. KerryWaffles, or President Bush.

The whole article is here. Registration required.

Yet, there are signs that the pressure is working and that Sadr is concerned. He is sending mixed signals (more of that registration stuff) as he seems to realize that his guys probably aren't going to be able to stop Dana Pittard and his Band of Brothers, while at the same time, he has to maintain a sufficiently resolute line to maintain discipline and loyalty among his fighters - at least until he can dump them for a safer spot elsewhere.

And lastly - there is this bit that serves to illustrate the contradictory nature of what we face in Iraq.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis reacted with relief and frustration Wednesday to President Bush's suggestion that he may send more troops here and that they would take decisive action to restore order.

Razzaq Abdel-Zahra, the owner of an auto parts shop, saw a short report of Bush's comments on Arabic satellite station Al-Jazeera.

"I was relieved to hear Bush saying that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq because any withdrawal means disaster in my country," he said. "Every militia will try to take control of Iraq. This will lead to a civil war and subsequently Iraq will fall apart."

But he also said the president's vow to use "decisive force" to maintain order would lead to more unrest. "Violence breeds only violence," he said.

This guy wants it both ways. Since he lives there - maybe we should listen to the cultural message in this. "We want to be awed. If you awe us, we won't fight you. If we percieve you as weak, we will fight - and then we'll be mad at you for fighting back - because it was your fault we thought you were weak."

In other words, just about the opposite of the way we think in the western world, and opposite of the way we are approaching it. I dunno. Just random synapse activity here.

The rest of that article, again with the registration thing, is here.