Facebook Twitter

Iraqi insurgency is stronger than previous U.S. estimates

SHARE Iraqi insurgency is stronger than previous U.S. estimates

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Senior American officials are beginning to assemble a new portrait of the insurgency that has continued to inflict casualties on American and Iraqi forces, showing that it has significantly more fighters and far greater financial resources than previously estimated.

Containing that insurgency is the major challenge facing U.S. and Iraqi officials in preparation for Iraqi national elections in January.

Meanwhile, in key developments Thursday:

The highest-ranking U.S. soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib prison case was sentenced to eight years in prison, the severest punishment so far in the scandal that broke in April with the publication of photos and video showing Americans humiliating and abusing naked Iraqis. Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick's civilian attorney called the sentence exces-sive.

The British government agreed to a U.S. request to transfer 850 British troops of the First Battalion, Black Watch Regiment from southern Iraq to an area near Baghdad so U.S. troops could be shifted to insurgent hot spots. The agreement came despite fierce opposition within the governing Labour Party among lawmakers who saw it as a political gift to President Bush ahead of November elections.

Gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Iraqi women to their jobs at Baghdad International Airport, killing one and wounding 14.

Three people who worked in Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's office were killed and a fourth was wounded in an ambush in western Baghdad.

Several mortars fell about two blocks from Allawi's convoy in Mosul, setting off a small blaze and plumes of smoke. No casualties were reported.

Fallujah leaders called on Allawi's government to pursue a peaceful solution to the military standoff around the city and order a halt to frequent U.S. airstrikes, but fresh clashes erupted between U.S. Marines and insurgents in the insurgent bastion.

New estimates on the resources of the Iraq insurgency contrast sharply with earlier intelligence reports.

When foreign fighters and the network of a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are counted with home-grown insurgents, the hard-core resistance numbers between 8,000 and 12,000 people, a tally that grows to more than 20,000 when active sympathizers or covert accomplices are included, according to the American officials.

Earlier estimates of the number of insurgents had varied from as few as 2,000 to a maximum of 7,000 fighters. The revised estimate is influencing the military campaign in Iraq but has not prompted a wholesale review of the strategy, officials said.

In recent interviews, military and other government officials in Iraq and in Washington said that the core of the Iraqi insurgency now consists of as many as 50 militant cells that draw on "unlimited money" from an underground financial network run by former Baath Party leaders and Saddam Hussein's relatives.

Their financing is supplemented in great part by wealthy Saudi donors and Islamic charities that funnel large sums of cash through Syria, according to these officials, who have access to detailed intelligence reports.

Only half the estimated $1 billion the Saddam government put in Syrian banks before the war has been recovered, Pentagon officials said. There is no tally of money flowing through Syria to Iraq from wealthy Saudis or Islamic charities, but one Pentagon official said the figure is "significant."

Unclassified assessments by some private analysts have recently sounded some of the same warnings. This week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in releasing its annual global military survey, said that perhaps 1,000 militant Islamic jihadists have entered Iraq to join the fight, and it estimated it would take five years for the U.S. military to prepare Iraqi forces fully to take over from the forces of the United States and its allies.

American military and Pentagon officials continue to hold that as Iraqi security forces increase in numbers and effectiveness, they will be able to gather even more detailed and timely information, an important consideration if the insurgency is to be stifled. The critical variable, these officials note, remains the large segment of the Iraqi population that still has not decided whether to actively support the new government. Despite concerns about foreign fighters, American officials said the most significant challenge to the stabilization effort comes from domestic Iraqi insurgents, and not from foreign terrorists, despite the violence of attacks organized or carried out by foreigners.

These officials said that, in many places, secular Sunni insurgent leaders — mostly Saddam-era loyalists — are being challenged and even surpassed in authority by militant Islamic activists from within Iraq. This development presents fresh concerns to Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, as he attempts to negotiate a political solution to stalemates in such places as Fallujah, where Pentagon and military officials say the insurgency increasingly is taking on a radical Islamic face.

Throughout the occupation of Iraq, American officials have struggled to construct an accurate portrait of the insurgency they have been fighting. In discussing this most recent intelligence, the officials appeared to present a fuller picture of the security problems confronting the country than has been provided in previous interviews or other public statements.

But just as some earlier intelligence estimates before and since the war have proved incorrect, specialists acknowledge that the current assessments, too, are inevitably imperfect.

"What makes it more difficult is that you're dealing with an insurgency without a single face," said a senior Army intelligence officer with nearly a year's experience in Iraq. "It's not just one group of insurgents rallying under one cause. It's multiple groups with different causes loosely tied together by the threads of anti-U.S. sentiment, some sort of Iraqi nationalism, Muslim-Arab unity or greed." Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III of the Army, the military's senior intelligence officer in Iraq, said in an interview in Baghdad: "It's detective work and it's very difficult work." DeFreitas, who is a former chief intelligence officer for the American military in South Korea and for the secretive U.S. Special Operations Command, called it "a challenge for the U.S. military to use tools, well designed for maneuver warfare, against an insurgency. Insurgents don't show up in satellite imagery very well."

According to data assembled by the military, about 80 percent of the violent attacks are criminal in nature — kidnappings for ransom or hijackings of convoys — with no political motivation. Of the other 20 percent, which include the most dramatic and violent attacks on Iraqi security forces, the American military, and international organizations, about four-fifths are blamed on domestic insurgents rather than on foreign terrorists.

The Ramadan holy season that began this month has sparked a 25 percent increase in daily attacks, according to Pentagon officials, but they see no indication yet of a major insurgent offensive. But they expressed concerns that such an offensive could come in November or December, as voter registration gets underway in earnest, or be timed to the elections in January.

"What we don't see yet is a unifying leader of the insurgency," said DeFreitas.

One Pentagon official said the insurgency is now organized regionally, and that evidence points to some planning across regional boundaries. But there is no national insurgent network, the official said.

Even the Zarqawi organization, this Pentagon official said, which can plan and carry out attacks outside its base in Fallujah and the broader Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad, has no sustained operations or base outside that area.

Even as American attacks are killing dozens of fighters and some leadership figures every week, officials said, insurgents in many parts of Iraq have been able to promote lieutenants into higher leadership roles and are able to attract a steady stream of recruits. But some of the new leaders stepping into command roles are not as qualified as their predecessors, military officers said, in particular those filling spots in the Zarqawi network in Fallujah.

Senior military and Pentagon officials said the new information is being developed by, and because of, the growing role of Iraqi police and other security forces, who are more adept than American forces at spotting insurgents or people who might come forward with tips. Iraqis are setting up centralized operations centers to share information and coordinate anti-insurgent activities.

But a Pentagon official noted evidence that even the new Iraqi security forces have been penetrated by insurgents, or at least by people willing to share information with them. One example of that penetration is the Tuesday attack on an Iraqi National Guard base north of Baghdad, which killed four and injured 80. The attack came at the exact time guardsmen were mustering for a ceremony, which is accepted by analysts as an indication that those firing off the mortars had inside information.

Military officials say they are getting a clearer view of the major financial backers of the insurgencies, and the main operatives and their cell networks inside Iraq. The financial leadership is said to number about 20 people, mostly operating outside of Iraq.

Among the most influential militant financiers are members of the Majid family, particularly three cousins of Saddam, who are actively involved in the smuggling of weapons, fighters and money into Iraq, and live in Syria. Another key organizer is Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, a former Baath Party leader and aide to Saddam, officials say.

These former Baathists are helping to arm and equip cell leaders in the Sunni heartland, who in turn run local teams. Many turn to unemployed and disaffected Iraqi men, eager to earn money. The going rate in parts of Baghdad for planting roadside bombs is $100 to $300 per explosive, one senior military officer said.

Military and Pentagon officials say there is no shortage of funds for the insurgency, although the counterinsurgency campaign has slowed the delivery of money to some areas, prompting one Pentagon official to describe a lull in guerrilla activities when the money runs low between deliveries.

Pentagon officials say there appears to be no official Saudi government support for the financial network, but expressed dissatisfaction with the level of Saudi efforts to block the money transfers. A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington said his country has strict banking regulations, and would examine any evidence of Saudi citizens supporting the Iraqi insurgency.Earlier this week, in Mahmudiya, American Marines said they discovered the leader of the financing network for Zarqawi among the detainees at a military camp there. The Marines said the man, Mahmud Abdel Aziz al-Harami al-Janabi, was captured along with other suspected militants in a raid on Sunday. And Pentagon officials say that some members of the Zarqawi network have fled Fallujah, and that those still inside are setting up military-style defenses in anticipation of a ground attack.

Marine intelligence officers responsible for operations in western Iraq say there are at least five major insurgent leaders of the groups operating in Fallujah, whose aim is to undermine the fledgling Iraqi government, drive out the American troops and make money through smuggling and extortion rackets.

Marine officers say that in addition to Zarqawi, a Sunni extremist named Omar Hadid and a sheik named Janabi, a radical Sunni cleric, are both influential anti-American militants.

Marine officers say that Hadid runs a gangland-style operation, making money through car smuggling and hostage-for-ransom operations, as well as from tithes collected by sympathetic mosques.

Former members of the Baath Party and Iraq security services, and criminal gangs also operate in Fallujah. "It's a loose confederation of interests as well as marriages of convenience," Col. Ron Makuta, the chief intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said in an interview Thursday at its headquarters at Camp Fallujah, outside the city itself.

Contributing: Associated Press.