U.S. Forces Struggle to Contain Iraqi Insurgency
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And we'll move to another set of developments in Iraq, suicide attacks in Baghdad that killed 200 Iraqis in recent days. These attacks come after US and Iraqi forces launched a major counterinsurgency attack in western Iraq. The US and its allies said they had found a successful model for future sweeps, but the urban attacks by the insurgents help to explain why some experts say the US is winning hollow victories out in the west. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
More than 10,000 combined Iraqi and American forces recently swept into Tall'Afar near the Syrian border. US commanders had long seen the ethnically divided town as part of a network of safe-haven towns where insurgents organize, plan, train and equip cells. In a new approach, Army Colonel H.R. McMaster said his men were ready in nearby villages as insurgents tried to disperse when US Iraqi forces moved in.
Colonel H.R. McMASTER (US Army): We captured five of the enemy dressed as women trying desperately to get out of the area. We captured 104 of the enemy in these outlying areas, and we're continuing to hunt them down.
WESTERVELT: Both Iraqi and US officials called it a success, but elsewhere almost as quickly the streets were again filled with chaos. The Tall'Afar sweep was followed by a series of carefully coordinated car bombings in Baghdad, once again raising questions about the effectiveness of US and Iraqi security efforts.
(Soundbite of people, siren)
WESTERVELT: Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a small but potent foreign fighter slice of the Sunni-led insurgency, claimed responsibility. The group also declared all-out sectarian war on Shia, whom they view as traitors.
Mr. ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic & International Studies): We've had a low-level civil war for months, and we need to admit it.
WESTERVELT: Military analyst Anthony Cordesman is with the Center for Strategic & International Studies. US and Iraqi forces, Cordesman says, continue a pattern of carrying out what he calls empty tactical victories, operations that win the immediate fight but fail to secure broader stability or popular support.
Mr. CORDESMAN: We don't have the capability to put US troops in the cities in the west or even Sunni areas in Baghdad and Mosul that don't alienate almost as many people as they may secure. We don't see the Iraqis able to follow up their military activity with a permanent police or security presence. The truth is that we don't seem to be able to follow up military victory with political victory.
WESTERVELT: And US commanders believe political progress, not military might, will eventually suppress the insurgency. Former Army Major General Bill Nash is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Major General BILL NASH (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Politics and economics defeated insurgency, and the second order is the security efforts to support them. It's very difficult because the insurgents get to pick when and where and how they attack. The Iraqi government and the American forces, they have to defend everywhere.
WESTERVELT: There's renewed frustration on Capitol Hill with Iraq's political and security tracks. Republican Senator John McCain says the US needs to do more to follow up military sweeps with sustainable security plans passed off to capable Iraqis.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I have always said we need more troops. I believed it then. I believe it now. But there is some thinking in the White House and in the Pentagon that allows us to gain control and maintain control until it's turned over to the Iraqis, such as just happened in Najaf. We need more of that.
WESTERVELT: The Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are now under symbolic Iraqi security control with US forces just outside the city. The US has been unable to successfully turn security control over to Iraqis in any of the Sunni-dominated cities or towns. In a BBC interview, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani acknowledged his troops aren't ready.
(Soundbite from BBC interview)
President JALAL TALABANI (Iraq): Let me be frank. Our security force is not so well trained that they'll be able to face this new kind of war. You know this is a new kind of war. There's no regular war as it was.
WESTERVELT: Polls in the US continue to show disapproval at home with the way the war is going, but pressure on the Bush administration isn't just coming from polls or Capitol Hill. There's quiet but growing pressure for a troop drawdown from within the military, says retired Marine Corps Major General Joseph Hoar. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Joseph Hoar is a retired four-star Marine Corps General.]
General JOSEPH HOAR (Retired, US Marine Corps): The Army has a very big stake in reducing the presence there. So I think that there is internal pressure to try and find a solution to this and to get Iraqis trained up as quickly as possible.
WESTERVELT: General Hoar says multiple tours and ongoing combat continue to strain Army families and obstruct recruitment efforts.
Gen. HOAR: This is the reality on the ground of a war that's becoming increasingly more unpopular.
WESTERVELT: Meantime, US and Iraqi forces will continue to conduct operations in the Euphrates River Valley and western Iraqi towns, but as attacks on Fallujah and Tall'Afar have shown, some insurgents continue to adapt, evade and simply move elsewhere. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.
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Correction Sept. 22, 2005
Gen. Joseph Hoar's rank was misstated in the on-air version of this story. He is a retired four-star Marine Corps general.