ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Last night, insurgents in southern Baghdad attacked a mounted patrol with a roadside bomb. The attack left four more U.S. soldiers dead and brought the death toll to 4,000. Also yesterday, insurgents fired as many as 20 mortar shells into the Green Zone. This is the war in Iraq five years on, irregular attackers operating anonymously in small units.
To talk about the state of the war and how the U.S. military changes tactics to deal with it, we turn now to retired General Robert Scales, who's talked with us many times over the course of the conflict.
Welcome once again.
General ROBERT SCALES (Retired; U.S. Army): Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: It seems most of the U.S. casualties that we hear about nowadays are either from roadside bombs or from small arms fire; it's been that way for a while. How have the attacks and the countermeasures to them evolved?
Gen. SCALES: Over the last five years, what started off as incidental contacts and sort of jury-rigged attacks on U.S. forces have escalated. As the U.S. has built up countermeasures with thicker armor and more sophisticated detection devices, the enemy has built ever larger explosives. They've found clever ways to hide their IEDs, their roadside bombs, and even more diabolical means for detonating these devices.
And so we've gone from a couple of mortar rounds used as roadside bombs five years ago to now these massive, thousand pounds, in some cases even larger bombs going off that just rip up whole neighborhoods and tear up huge gashes on the roads.
SIEGEL: And this weekend saw a heavier than usual mortar attack on the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, from populous Baghdad neighborhoods, it's thought. If the groups who were firing off these mortars hide behind civilians, what's the U.S. supposed to do in response?
Gen. SCALES: It's very difficult, Robert, because, remember, the enemy chooses densely populated regions to fire their mortars or launch their rockets. And so, even though they - the point of launch can be determined with great precision, the ability to shoot back is limited. You simply can't just load up a bunch of artillery guns and throw rounds into a crowded neighborhood. So the enemy has time while the U.S. forces are clearing the area, putting together a patrol or launching helicopters to simply fade away into buildings and hide away in alleys.
SIEGEL: Does it suggest that the enemy enjoys some support from those neighborhoods, or at least has intimidated people in those neighborhoods?
Gen. SCALES: Not necessarily. Remember, these are hit-and-run attacks. Oftentimes, they'll drive in from miles away and pick up surveillance, pull up into an open space, set-up their mortars, lay their mortars, indirectly fire off 15, 20 rounds, load back up and leave, long before even the populace knows that they happen to be there.
SIEGEL: Now, when it comes to Iraqi deaths in Iraq, we hear U.S. leaders refer to spectacular attacks, the suicide bombers who attack crowds of civilians, the kind of attack that we've all been familiar with from reading about the Arab-Israeli conflict...
Gen. SCALES: Right.
SIEGEL: ...for years. And there is - it's a cliche by now. If someone is set on blowing him or herself up, there's not much you can do to defend it. True?
Gen. SCALES: That's true. There really isn't. There's so little you can do when you're facing an enemy who is enthusiastic about death. And oftentimes, they will do this to achieve some sort of spectacular result. They want to capture the headlines. They want to create an impression among the Iraqis and Arabs in the region that the U.S. efforts to bill this a period of tranquility is interrupted by these periodic spikes. And so the more dramatic they can make it, the more deaths that they can cause, that really plays to their ends.
SIEGEL: Stipulating that there needs to be a political solution ultimately of the conflict in Iraq, but assuming that a political solution would be more possible in an improved security environment, what's the best military posture for the U.S. right now to see the Iraqis sort things out?
Gen. SCALES: Well, what's happening now is the security situation's reached sort of a plateau, if you will. The United States has spent all their resources and time, money and people with the surge. And so we've reached a stasis, if you will, a sort of a plateau in which both sides are - have achieved their respective ends. And so what the U.S. command seeks to do is hold on long enough to create this period of quiescence and make it last long enough for the Iraqis to begin to take charge.
SIGEL: General Scales, thank you very much...
Gen. SCALES: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: ...for talking with us once again. It's retired U.S. Army General Robert Scales.
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