U.S. cutting insurgents' access to arms, money, general says

Financiers captured, cash and weapons seized, but still 'a long way to go'

December 13, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TIKRIT, Iraq - The U.S. general commanding operations in Saddam Hussein's ancestral homeland says that American forces have dealt a damaging blow to the insurgency in this pivotal region of Iraq in the past 30 days by choking off much of the guerrillas' financing and arms supplies. But he also acknowledges that the occupation still faces huge challenges, including suicide bombings and the training and equipping of new Iraqi police officers and militia.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who heads the Army's 4th Infantry Division, said in an interview Thursday night that American operations had captured several important insurgent financiers in recent days, seized money stashed across the region to pay for weapons and attacks ($500 to conduct a strike and up to $3,000 to kill an American soldier), and stopped couriers smuggling money from outside Iraq.

Nearly $2 million in American cash was seized in Samarra this week. As a result, he said, attacks against American soldiers had dropped to an average of six a day, from 22 a day a month ago.

"For the first time in the last 30 days, I truly feel we've gotten into their cycle of financing," Odierno said at his headquarters here, in one of Hussein's sprawling palace complexes. "We have indications they're having trouble financing attacks. There are indications that for the first time, they're having trouble getting their hands on weapons."

Odierno said he could not say how long American troops would stay in Iraq. But he set out four specific conditions for their departure: creating a credible police force to maintain civil order, establishing an army to defend against external threats, forming an effective new government and eliminating the threat of insurgency by former Iraqi security forces.

"There's still a long way to go," said Odierno.

Indeed, this city of 30,000 people is struggling with a 50 percent unemployment rate, and Odierno said the coalition must speed the process of Iraqi self-rule, hasten the pace of rebuilding the infrastructure and rid Iraqis of the intimidation imposed for more than three decades by Hussein's Baath Party.

Odierno oversees military operations north of Baghdad in a swath of Iraq the size of West Virginia, ranging from this Sunni bastion to the northern oil fields of Kirkuk, to the Iranian border in the east. Success in this Sunni-dominated region could set an important model for the rest of the country, but the general said he was realistic about what American troops could and could not accomplish here.

"We are not going to win hearts and minds in seven months," Odierno said. "They have been taught to hate Westerners for 35 years. They've been indoctrinated. But what we can do is try to show them that we can at least start them on the way to a better life. I think the majority of the people do want that."

Odierno cautioned that the recent successes had driven insurgents to change their tactics and begin carrying out suicide bombings against military and civilian targets. There were three such attacks on American bases this week. "It shows their desperation," he said.

Capturing or killing Hussein would provide a huge lift toward that goal. "It's psychological," Odierno said. "I don't think he's really directing any of the operations, but I think he has a psychological effect. They fear him. They absolutely fear him. And there's a fear he might come back and suppress them."

An elite team of Special Operations Forces and Central Intelligence Agency operatives, called Task Force 121, is leading the hunt for Hussein and other top former Iraqi officials. Odierno said American forces believe they had at least two close calls with the former Iraqi dictator in recent months. In a raid on a safe house in the Tikrit area this past summer, American forces said they had learned from Iraqis they detained that Hussein had been there just eight hours earlier.

"I think he's moving around," Odierno said. "Look at the quality of his tapes. Any one of my soldiers could make a better tape than he does right now."

Odierno said that most of the attacks against American forces are being coordinated by former colonels and lieutenant colonels in the Iraqi intelligence services, Special Republican Guard or other Iraqi security services.

"There's no one mastermind," he said. "It's to work at the will of the American people back in the U.S. ... They still believe we're not willing to take casualties."

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