In Iraq, not one conflict but many

U.S. troops caught among combatants

October 07, 2006|By Solomon Moore and Louise Roug | Solomon Moore and Louise Roug,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Consider a recent day - an average 24 hours in Iraq.

Here in the capital, the bodies of eight young men were found chained together, stripped of identification papers, shot and dumped in a parking lot, the first of 20 corpses found in the capital that day.

In northern Iraq, a man detonated a bomb vest amid a group of women, children and men lining up for cooking oil, killing himself and 21 others. In the south, police found the bullet-torn body of a senior anti-terrorism official. And in Anbar province in the west, a car smashed into a line of police recruits and exploded, killing 13 by fire and shrapnel.

In all, at least 57 people died and 17 were injured in the violence that day, Sept. 18.

They were all killed in the same country, but not in the same war. The fighting in Iraq is not a single conflict, but an overlapping set of conflicts, fought on multiple battlegrounds, with different combatants. Increasingly, American troops are caught among the competing forces.

In western Iraq's deserts, Sunni Arab insurgent groups, some homegrown and others dominated by foreign fighters, attack Iraqi government forces and the U.S. troops who back them up. In Baghdad and surrounding provinces, Sunni and Shiite fighters attack each other and their civilians in a burgeoning civil war that U.S. troops have tried to quell.

In southern Iraq, the Shiites dominate. But they are divided, with rival militias fighting for control of oil and commerce. And in the north of the country, Arabs and Kurds battle to control territory that both groups covet.

Often over the past three years, the U.S. military has shifted troops to try to tamp down one of those conflicts, only to see another escalate. Now, many American officials worry that with the proliferation of armed actors in Iraq's multiple conflicts, the original U.S. counterinsurgency mission has become something else - an operation aimed at quelling civil war, which is a much more ambiguous and politically fraught objective.

American troops find themselves in the crossfire, caught among foreign jihadis, Sunni nationalist rebels, Shiite militiamen and other armed groups all fighting each other.

"It's a very complex situation," said Gen. Thomas Turner, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "Sometimes it's difficult to figure out where the violence is coming from."

Desert insurgency

Anbar province houses the conflict most familiar to Americans and most costly to U.S. troops - Marines and Iraqi insurgents, battling in the country's vast western desert.

The insurgents are a mix of groups, almost all Sunni Arabs, some made up primarily of Iraqis, others heavily composed of foreign fighters drawn to the battle against the U.S. occupation. In addition to U.S. troops, they also target Iraqi forces and Sunnis who are suspected of cooperating with the government.

Rarely a week passes without the U.S. military sending out several terse death notices from Anbar.

Attacks against U.S. forces climbed 27 percent in Anbar since last year, according to the Marines. U.S. attempts to reduce the resulting toll by turning over security duties there to Iraqi forces have met with little success. Marines say there are 5,000 Iraqi police and 13,000 Iraqi soldiers in the province, but the Iraqi forces remain fragile and unable to sustain themselves. Half the Iraqi soldiers are on leave at any given time, and many don't return to duty. In May, desertion rates in some Iraqi units reached 40 percent.

Last month, threats from insurgents led half of Fallujah's police force to stay home for days, a U.S. general said. And Fallujah at least has a police force. Other strategic cities, including Haditha, Hit and Ramadi, remain virtually lawless.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida in Iraq, the best-known of the insurgent groups, continues to make inroads in the province, consolidating and expanding the group's reach. Al-Qaida in Iraq was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until U.S. forces killed him in June. American officials had hoped al-Zarqawi's death would severely disrupt the group, but so far, that does not appear to have happened.

"Al-Qaida has murdered, intimidated, co-opted or paid off all the local national insurgent groups," said Marine Lt. Col. Bryan Salas, a military spokesman in Fallujah. "They run an organized criminal enterprise that has its tentacles in everything from black-market gasoline sales to extortion of police and government paychecks. Al-Qaida provides the leadership and organization for this loose association of organized criminals."

A capital in crisis

While the Sunni Arab insurgency is blamed for much of the violence in Anbar province, in Baghdad, Shiite militias drive the bulk of the killings, according to most U.S. officials. Sunnis account for many of the victims.

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