Monday, December 05, 2005

US Army admits Iraqis outnumber foreign fighters as its main enemy

Iraqis, rather than foreign fighters, now form the vast majority of
the insurgents who are waging a ferocious guerrilla war against
United States forces in Sunni western Iraq, American commanders have

Their conclusion, disclosed to the Sunday Telegraph in interviews
over 10 days in battle-torn Anbar province, contradicts the White
House message that outsiders are the principal enemy in Iraq.

Of 1,300 suspected insurgents arrested over the past five months in
and around Ramadi, none has been a foreigner. Col John Gronski,
senior officer in the town, Anbar's provincial capital, said that
almost all insurgent fighting there was by Iraqis. Foreigners
provided only money and logistical support.

"The foreign fighters are staying north of the [Euphrates] river,
training and advising, like the Soviets were doing in Vietnam," he

Although there are tensions between Iraqi insurgents and foreigners
from the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian zealot Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi, there are also alliances of convenience.

Col Gronski identified Mohammed Bassim Hazim, a former Ramadi taxi
driver known as Abu Khattab, as the leader of the town's insurgency.
Abu Khattab has become an "affiliate" of Zarqawi's group, many of
whose members are Iraqis, and has been responsible for most of the
1,770 attacks against US and Iraqi forces in the past three months.

Ramadi, unlike neighbouring Fallujah, where 10 marines were killed by
a bomb on Friday, has never been taken over by rebels. But it remains
disputed turf at best. Thirty-four troops have died there since the
beginning of September. Insurgent casualties have been much heavier -
more than 180 in the same period in the town's eastern half alone.

American troop strengths have doubled in the past year with a US Army
armoured battalion now supplementing a US Marine light infantry

Lt Col Michael Herbert, a brigade intelligence officer, said Abu
Khattab has become an almost mythical figure. "He is the face of the
insurgency in Ramadi. He has been behind the majority of the
attacks." He was arrested by US forces last year but released,
apparently due to lack of evidence and because his significance was
not then appreciated. His photograph shows him wearing a Guantanamo-
style orange jumpsuit.

The insurgents have the support of most locals. "They have the
ability to move freely around the city," said Capt Twain Hickman, the
commander of India Company of the 3/7 US Marines battalion. "That
means they can attack at a time of their choosing."

Most wanted: An American sniper's picture of Abu Khattab
Col Gronski said the local nature of the insurgency meant that even
the few civic leaders prepared to work with the Americans view the
fighters as legitimate. "They see them as resistance. They don't view
these local guys placing IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and
firing mortars at us as insurgents."

Some Iraqis in Ramadi now adhere to Zarqawi's radical Islamist
philosophy, but for most the insurgency is about removing the
occupiers, Col Herbert said. "Their family and tribal honour has been
impugned if we're on their ground. They're almost duty bound to

Unemployment, which is over 50 per cent, and widespread intimidation
are also fuelling the insurgency. "It's economic," said Lt Col Robert
Roggeman, who commands the 2/69 US Army battalion. "Two hundred bucks
to shoot at an American, 50 bucks to lay down an IED."

Iraqi officials who deal with the Americans are routinely killed.
Ma'amoun Salmi Rasheed, the governor of Anbar, has survived a dozen
assassination attempts. His predecessor and deputy were murdered.
Little reconstruction is being done, said Col Roggeman. "Here, it's
security first."

The Pentagon plan for the country is to hand over "battle space" to
Iraqi forces once they are capable of combating the insurgency so
that American forces can withdraw. But this scheme has been beset by
problems in Ramadi.

A year ago the local police force was disbanded because many of its
members were insurgents. In October, the provincial police chief was
arrested on suspicion of diverting salaries to fund the insurgency.

There are three Iraqi army battalions in the town, comprised mainly
of Shia troops from outside Ramadi, where the population is Sunni. If
American troops exit prematurely, this could be a factor in sparking
a civil war.

Splits among insurgents, however, could assist the US aim to isolate
Zarqawi's group. Recent weeks have seen what the military terms "red
on red" gun battles between insurgent groups.

Bombs near houses and one that killed civilians on a bus prompted the
clashes and could have eroded Abu Khattab's support. "He is feared
rather than popular," said Col Herbert. "He might be overstepping the

But the commander of one of the Iraqi battalions, who asked not to be
named for fear of reprisals, said it would be "at least two or three
years" before his men were ready to fight alone.

"The terrorists control Ramadi and the mosques assist them," he
said. "We are getting better but the Iraqi army is still weak and we
need equipment. We always rely on the Americans to do the hardest
jobs for us."

Each week, US forces achieve successes. In the recent Operation
Machete, Capt Hickman's men uncovered an Aladdin's cave of arms
buried in caches close to the banks of the Euphrates.

There had been intelligence that the munitions were being transported
across the river on small boats. But since Iraq still has huge
stockpiles of weapons from the Saddam era, insurgents are unlikely to
run out of supplies.

"These insurgents have a great deal of tactical and operational
patience," said Col Gronski. "They will continue to look for the time
and the place because time is on their side."

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