U.S. forces hard-pressed to stop violence in Iraq

Military rethinks tactics for restoring normalcy amid continued unrest

October 28, 2003|By Stephen J. Hedges | Stephen J. Hedges,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Two U.S. Army helicopters circled helplessly yesterday morning above the confused scene on An Nidal street, contributing little but noise. Below lay the scattered shards of a late-model Iraqi ambulance outside the headquarters of the Red Cross, a dozen extinguished lives and another tear in the U.S. plan to rebuild Iraq.

Amid the carnage of the suicide car bombings that rocked the Iraqi capital early yesterday, the helicopters made one point painfully clear: The Pentagon's precision weapons and advanced machinery can do little to stop a fleet of explosives-laden vehicles from maneuvering through crowded city streets.

The blasts' shock waves did not merely rattle windows throughout Baghdad. They were felt throughout a Muslim world increasingly hostile toward the U.S. occupation of Iraq, in European capitals increasingly reluctant to send troops to help, and in Washington, where the White House faced fresh questions about the effectiveness of the U.S. mission.

With every passing day, and every fresh attack on U.S. forces, their fledgling Iraqi understudies or Western institutions that have come to help, an elusive enemy is raising the stakes of this still-unsettled war, displaying newly sophisticated abilities to coordinate unrest.

The American forces are left to box at shadows.

So far, the American military's response to the increased attacks has been to step up its own activities. Patrols are more frequent, as are raids on suspected guerrilla cells.

But another part of the plan - an accelerated effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces to take more responsibility for protecting their country - hasn't gone as quickly as Pentagon planners promised. Nor has an international division of relief troops arrived to ease the burden; given the reluctance of the handful of countries that might have contributed such troops, it probably never will.

The resulting sense of uncertainty brings acts of violence like yesterday's bombings into greater relief. They are hammer blows on an already bruised national psyche, and they leave the American military, which can only rush to the scenes of bombings to take charge of the wreckage, looking ineffective.

"There is no doubt that we need to change the rules of engagement with these people," Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite Muslim member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, told CNN. "The rules of engagement now are too lenient."

Yesterday's consecutive suicide bombings followed a weekend of brazen attacks, one on a hotel where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying and a second that downed an Army Black Hawk helicopter.

After the devastating earlier bombings of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and a Shiite mosque in Najaf, the assailants are betting that the cascading violence will demoralize Iraqi citizens and officials, drive away international aid workers and unsettle the American soldiers, who are routinely blamed for failing to prevent the attacks.

U.S. and Iraqi officials who are trying to create a government here say they believe former loyalists of deposed leader Saddam Hussein and Muslim extremists from within or outside the country have found a common cause in staging the attacks. The targets are symbols of normalcy, such as police stations and humanitarian organizations, and Iraqis deemed to be "collaborators" with the U.S. occupation.

"Now we start to see their action in a combined way," said Ali Adel Amer, an aide to Iyad Allawi, the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council. "So from this point, now they work together, from about a month ago. Before that, they worked separately."

To fend off attacks, L. Paul Bremer III, administrator of the American-led Iraqi occupation, said the coalition has beefed up "the number of people doing counterintelligence" and has set up a special office to coordinate the intelligence he said is coming into the military.

Some experts remain worried, however.

"The military lesson here is that you don't need tanks, you need large numbers of security-style troops on the ground," one expert said. "Uncle Sam realizes that, and they're trying to recruit Iraqi personnel to do that. But in the interim, there is a huge window of opportunity for the opposition."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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