U.S. sends blunt message to Iraq rebels

Heavy force is meant to show insurgents the depth of American resolve

November 21, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The weeklong U.S. assault on the Sunni Triangle with 1-ton bombs, artillery barrages and lightning raids is meant to send a blunt message of American resolve - as much as rounding up Baathist insurgents and destroying caches of weapons, military officers say.

"It's a psychological tool," said one senior military officer at the Pentagon, pointing to operations with names like "Iron Hammer" and "Ivy Cyclone" and "Furious Fire." The message: "We're not quitting. We're taking the fight to you."

And there is no indication that the iron-fist tactics employed by U.S. commanders in Iraq will end soon. A general told reporters In Baghdad yesterday that the Iron Hammer offensive against insurgents in the capital had reduced guerrilla attacks in the city by 70 percent.

"What I want the enemy to know is that there is no sanctuary in Baghdad," said Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, who brushed aside suggestions that the operation was merely a show of force.

Meanwhile, in London, President Bush seemed open to the idea of sending more U.S. troops to Iraq if they are needed to bolster security.

"We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we can have more troops in Iraq," Bush said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing St. "Whatever is necessary to secure Iraq."

White House aides were quick to add that the president was not signaling a shift from the plan to reduce U.S. troop numbers by May to 105,000 from the current 131,600.

The big-stick policy

In recent days, the Air Force has used some of the largest conventional weapons in its inventory, 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs, to strike bomb-making camps north of Baghdad.

"The big-stick approach is going to last a little longer," predicted the Pentagon officer, who asked not to be named. He would not say how much longer.

An Army officer in Iraq familiar with the operations said the U.S. military, after months of escalating violence from Iraqi insurgents and their foreign allies, is sending the message with powder and shell rather than dropping leaflets and broadcasting announcements.

To get its point across, the United States is using overwhelming force, from F-16 attack aircraft and AC-130 gunships to artillery batteries, concentrating firepower on the Sunni Triangle, Saddam Hussein's one-time Baathist stronghold north and west of Baghdad.

This week, reporters in Baghdad, noting that some empty buildings were targeted, asked Army Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, deputy director of U.S. operations in Iraq, the purpose of the stepped-up operations. Kimmett was asked whether the new operations were designed for military impact or to intimidate the enemy.

"All of our military operations have a military purpose," Kimmitt replied, noting that the operations have produced concrete results, from capturing and killing Baathists to collecting crucial intelligence. "Some are to persuade. Some are to compel. Some are to kill. Some are to capture."

Although the Pentagon has not provided a comprehensive assessment of the operations, military officers say U.S. forces have killed or detained scores of insurgents and seized sizable caches of ammunition, mortars, rockets and rifles.

Mixed reaction

Defense analysts and retired military officers offered mixed reactions to the ratcheting up of combat operations.

Some say the operations are crucial to breaking the will of the estimated 5,000 Baathist insurgents, who form the backbone of resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. The operations, they say, may also serve to boost morale of U.S. soldiers, who are the targets of an increasing number of attacks, and that of the American public.

Other analysts say the strategy is a panicked and risky response by U.S. military leaders that could further alienate Iraqi civilians. Warplanes are no way to fight an insurgency, they argue: The military should focus on foot patrols - and perhaps send in more U.S. ground forces - while redoubling efforts to gain critical intelligence from local residents, particularly in the Sunni Triangle.

Moreover, the critics say, to effectively battle the insurgency, the U.S.-led coalition must continue to build indigenous security forces and quickly turn over political authority to Iraqis, perhaps even faster than the June deadline set by U.S. officials over the weekend.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., former commandant of the Army War College and co-author of The Iraq War, which chronicles the military aspects of the three-week campaign to oust Hussein, said the high-intensity U.S. operations are necessary "to gain the psychological upper hand."

"The Iraqis still don't understand they were beaten," Scales said in an interview, noting that the celebrated 19th-century Prussian military tactician Carl von Clausewitz emphasized that crushing the enemy's will to fight is paramount.

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