“What we are seeing is a group of frustrated and desperate people who kill innocent life,” said US president George W. Bush in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, May 31. “…I believe the Iraqi government is plenty capable of dealing with them.”
The president was talking about Operation Lightning, the search-and-destroy dragnet launched this week to flush out guerrilla and terrorist forces in the Baghdad area. The 25,000 Iraqi and 15,000 US troops taking part in the operation split the capital into 23 sectors and threw up checkpoints at key points.
This military offensive, like its predecessors this month – Operation Matador in the al Qaim region on the Syrian border (see DEBKA-Net-Weekly 206) and the big marine New Market Operation to purge Haditha of terrorists – share an innate shortcoming: although they successfully defeated and put Iraqi and foreign guerrillas on the run from pillar to post, they lack the resources to prevent them creeping back to their purged havens.
The latest reports reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources estimate that insurgent and foreign terrorist forces, around 20,000 fighting men of whom 5 percent are foreigners, have regained control of 70 towns and villages north, west and south of Baghdad.
There was simply not enough military manpower to go round for garrisons to defend them.
The multinational force in Iraq has about 138,000 US troops (and another 22,000 from 27 other countries.) In Washington the Pentagon Wednesday, June 1, postponed to June 10 the release of military recruiting figures for May. The regular Army was reported to have missed recruiting goals for three straight months, registering a 42% shortfall in April. The Marines too missed their goal. Potential recruits and parents are growing wary about enlisting during the Iraq war.
The insurgent tactic is simple and effective. When the guerrillas detect a US or Iraqi force approaching a region or town under their control, they slip away without a fight and then steal back when US or government forces have gone.
Days after the completion of Operation Matador, the insurgents and foreign fighters systematically cleared out of Smugglers Corridor from al Qaim in the north to the western outskirts of Baghdad were back.
Baghdad’s Operation Lightning is expected to end the same way.
Grind them down for damage control
Because this end-result is inevitable, the objective of this string of US-Iraqi operations is not necessarily to beat and uproot the guerrillas from their bases, but rather to strike hard and grind down their operational capabilities so as to keep them on the run and inactive for short periods of time – damage control through erosion.
American commanders say that this is the best they can do given the slow pace of Iraqi army and police recruitment and the laggard tempo of forming new Iraqi units, training and making them fit for operations.
US military chiefs in Iraq dismiss the heavy casualty figures inflicted by the insurgents in May as a yardstick of their failure, and offer two counter-arguments.
A. Despite the large number of car bombings in May – a total of 168, often in pairs, expert observers have picked up changes in tenor. The impression they are gaining is that the insurgents are throwing everything they have into a last mighty and noisy effort.
DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s military sources in Iraq deduce this from their recent targets.
At their peak, the guerrillas and their terrorist partners were launching much bigger operations for which they picked strategic targets, such as important American units, embassies and foreign organizations like the UN, as well as oil fields and installations. No more. These days, most of their victims are Iraqis who are unprotected and therefore easier to hit, indicating that the insurgents have been forced to abandon strategic operations.
This evaluation is shared by president Jalal Talabani and head of Kurdish intelligence chief Qusrat Rasul, one of the few security leaders in Iraq the US administration in Washington and the CIA wholly trust.
B. Rather than assessing the security situation on the basis of the May casualty rate, US commanders prefer to ask whether Iraqis are continuing to join up with the army, police and security forces, even though they are prime targets for the insurgents. The answer is that they are and the numbers are constantly though slowly climbing. Should they suddenly taper off, there would be room for concern.
Zebari worried; Chalabi upbeat
Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, in New York and Washington, is less sanguine. Before meeting secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley Thursday, June 2, he reiterated that Iraq can’t survive on its own and the Iraqi army and police are not yet ready to assume responsibility for the nation’s security.
Questioning the US military’s presentations on the training of Iraqis, Zebari insisted he was more concerned with the quality of these forces than their numbers. “Is their leadership? Is there performance?” he asked.
His Shiite colleague, deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi is reported by DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s sources as taking the opposite view when he met Rice during her May 15 visit to Baghdad.
He told her that the rate of Iraqi recruitment was encouraging and could be improved. He declared himself the only government member capable of bringing masses of recruits to the flag. After she made her report to the White House, a decision was taken to give the once blackballed Iraqi politician a chance to deliver on his boast. He claimed he could raise for Iraqi armed forces Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr who staged a rebellion last year in Najef and Baghdad, as well as members of the Badr Organization, the military arm of SCIRI, one of Iraqi’s two main Shiite parties which is led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
Our military sources comment that beyond the mistrust with which US army chiefs have long held Chalabi, some assert that the recruitment rate-versus- deal toll debate is fallacious and misleading.
The only true criterion for defining the security situation and providing a basis for decision-making is the comparative number of losses on both sides – Iraqi security forces versus insurgents. The difficulty here is that no one in Baghdad or Washington has a true picture of guerrilla losses. Nonetheless the US military in Iraq has no doubt that the Iraqi army and police are sustaining many more losses that the opposition; they estimate the ratio as 10:1 – or even more.
This is the figure they advise addressing as a true indicator of a worrying situation.