Chinook's downing `hugely important'

Experts say attack may embolden anti-U.S. forces, have lasting effect

November 03, 2003|By Stephen J. Hedges and Mike Dorning | Stephen J. Hedges and Mike Dorning,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Just 14 hours earlier, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the military man in charge here, explained a week of unprecedented violence in Iraq as "a strategically and operationally insignificant surge of attacks."

By that he meant that no major military targets had been destroyed. But then came a cool, clear Sunday morning and the deaths of at least 16 Americans in the downing of an Army Chinook helicopter.

Yesterday's attack may have been a lucky shot; other anti-coalition fighters have tried and failed to bring down U.S. aircraft. But there was no doubt that it was, to use the general's words, strategically and operationally significant.

Experts say the attack could have a lasting effect on the conflict in Iraq, dimming the morale of U.S. troops and emboldening the anti-American opposition.

"It's a hugely important day," said Milt Bearden, a former CIA officer who led an insurgency against Soviet troops in Afghanistan and remembers how the downing of Soviet helicopters with Stinger missiles helped turn the tide there in the 1980s.

Until now, the period since May 1, when Bush declared major combat was over, has been a kind of hunt-and-peck war. The deaths of American soldiers have come in single digits, usually ones and twos.

The forces of the ex-regime, as Iraqis refer to the fighters, had until now failed in their attempts to destroy significant military targets.

The U.S. military slipped easily into the secluded compounds and bases that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his security-state forces used to insulate themselves from internal enemies. That means U.S. forces are most effectively attacked when they leave those bases, and mostly when in convoy.

To address that problem, the military moves as many troops as it can by air; seats on helicopters often are hard to come by. The bomb-cratered runways at two large former Iraqi airfields -- one at Camp Ridgeway, near yesterday's crash, and another at Al Asad, farther west -- have been repaired recently to make moving soldiers and supplies even less road-dependent.

"You cannot ever create an effective defense," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There are too many points of vulnerability. And even if your offense is effective, it will not by itself solve the problem, unless the people as a whole come to support what you're doing."

The Pentagon solution for an offensive has been more aggressive raids in Iraq and accelerated training for Iraqi police, security officers and the nation's new military. But that will still take several months.

The increasing pace of the guerrilla attacks -- they have jumped from fewer than 20 a day to nearly 40 a day in a month -- has prompted calls for a more immediate response.

"They're in a surge period, the bad guys," said retired Brig. Gen. David Grange, a special forces veteran who is vice president of the McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago. "The coalition has got to do the same.

The insurgents "are going to get the psychological advantage if they can show they can make these attacks at will," he said. "They've got to be crushed."

Bearden remembers a day in 1986 when three Soviet helicopters were struck in Afghanistan.

"It was electric," he said. "It wasn't the Stinger missile that was so important. It just inspired what was a demoralized Afghanistan opposition to make every day an awful day for the Soviet occupation."

The attacks on U.S. and Iraqi targets during the past month suggest a tightly disciplined military campaign rather than disorganized remnants of the old regime. And gathering intelligence on the anti-American forces has so far been difficult.

Grange said U.S. ability to gather effective intelligence on insurgents would be hampered as long as Iraqis harbor doubts about the motives and abilities of the U.S. occupation force.

"We have to convince them it's going to work," Grange said. "To do that, we've got to suppress this insurgency and show them through compassion and nation-building that it's worth it."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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