WASHINGTON - Vastly outnumbered by U.S. troops, armed with relatively crude weapons, Iraq's insurgents demonstrated again yesterday their skill at identifying vulnerabilities in American and Iraqi government forces, causing a heavy death toll.
Pentagon leaders have drawn frequent criticism for not expecting the kind of guerrilla war being waged in Iraq. The most recent, widely noted example was the failure to armor-plate a larger number of Humvees and supply trucks, leaving troops vulnerable to roadside bombs.
But the armor issue also graphically illustrated something else: the ability of the insurgents to impose huge costs on the U.S. military with relatively little expense or risk to themselves.
Factory armor-plating of a Humvee costs up to $58,000, not including the cost of making the vehicle strong and powerful enough to handle the extra 3,000 pounds. The Pentagon announced last week that it would spend $4 billion to ensure that its soldiers were better protected.
A roadside bomb - "improvised explosive device" - capable of destroying an unprotected truck and killing or maiming the servicemen inside can be made for a tiny fraction of this expense. Remote-controlled, it can be set off without the attacker drawing retaliatory fire.
"These attacks are extremely cost-effective for the enemy," said John Pike, a strategic analyst who runs the online think tank Globalsecurity.org. It takes "a few dozen dollars to make one of these," whereas the U.S. military in Iraq needs "thousands of trucks [costing] tens of thousands of dollars apiece to armor."
The key ingredient for a roadside bomb - explosives - is readily available in Iraq, which experts have repeatedly described as a huge ammunition dump.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of ordnance, including mines, hand grenades and artillery shells, were in storage depots around the country that were not guarded in the early days of the American invasion.
Attaching a detonator is not a difficult skill, said James Crippin, director of the Western Forensic Law Enforcement Training Center in Pueblo, Colo., a federally funded crime lab. "If they can follow directions, they can do it." A timer, garage-door opener or a cellular telephone can control the explosion.
Besides killing and maiming, these crude explosive devices force the Americans to go to great lengths to avoid attacks. Recently, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, ordered the Air Force to begin flying C-130s to help the Army take its troops off the most dangerous roads.
But the key to insurgents' success is the ability to adapt. In addition to roadside bombs, the insurgents have used mortars and some of the large quantity of automatic weapons available in Iraq.
Quick to adjust
During the major U.S.-led operation in November to crush the insurgency in Fallujah, American military officials noted that insurgents were quick to adjust to American tactics.
Anthony Cordesman, strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a draft report circulated this week: "The patterns of insurgent activity have evolved broadly and have come to include a wide range of tactics which are exploited whenever a given group finds them convenient, and which are repeated and refined with time."
Besides striking American forces and supply convoys, the insurgents have blown up oil pipelines in a bid to cripple Iraq's energy industry.
Military officials say the insurgents have also made adept use of cell phones and the Internet, opening and closing Web sites rapidly.
While Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials once belittled the insurgents as "dead-enders" loyal to the former Baath regime, the guerrillas are now spoken of in terms of bitter respect.
Briefing reporters last week, Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the Army's director of force development, described "a very, very sophisticated enemy, an enemy that does not have a conscience, an enemy that's prepared to use his own followers as the conduit or vehicle to bring the explosive into our midst."
Beyond lacking the right equipment, such as sufficient numbers of armored trucks and Humvees, the U.S. military was ill-prepared in its training and doctrine for this kind of war, said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank that specializes in defense planning. "We've got an army that is not structured, organized, trained or equipped for this kind of warfare," he said.
New U.S. manual
Faced with the carnage in Iraq, the Army is relearning the tough lessons from the past with a new manual for counterinsurgency operations put out in October by the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and sent to military planning units in Iraq.