Commentary: Iraq: After the Shootout

It was the kind of break that a beleaguered Bush Administration desperately needed after months of taking heat for its Iraq policy. On July 22, a local tipster led U.S. Special Forces and 101st Airborne Div. troops to the hideout of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay. In a fierce firefight, Iraq's No.2 and No.3 Most Wanted officials were killed. The shootout in Mosul left Pentagon officials jubilant, sparking renewed hopes that American soldiers might soon track down Saddam Hussein and halt a spreading guerrilla war and the toll it's taking on U.S. troops.

Removing the threat of a Hussein clan return to power is key to U.S. hopes for rebuilding a shattered Iraqi economy and society. The death of the sons could diminish the opposition's ardor and persuade civilians fearful of Hussein's retaliation to provide intelligence to American forces. The successful Mosul operation may also help convince Iraqis that the coalition will prevail, capturing their minds, if not their hearts. "Winning the minds is the more important," says Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., executive director of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments.

Still, the celebrations were tempered by the sobering realization that even if the U.S. military pulls off a "decapitation strategy," it may not put a quick end to the bubbling unrest in Iraq. Postwar Iraq remains a shooting gallery, where foreign soldiers and cooperative Iraqis are tempting targets for various factions, from Baath Party loyalists with a price on their heads to Shiite militants dreaming of a theocratic state. "There will be bumps in the road," Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer III said in a July 23 speech. "Total security is not possible."

To compound the danger, some members of Saddam's Republican Guards have dispersed into semi-autonomous rebel cells with access to stashes of arms. And their targets could expand to employees of U.S. companies trying to restore normalcy. Says Michael P. Hitchcock, vice-president of London's Control Risks Group: "If this guerrilla war continues, we'll see civilians being targeted."

What this adds up to is a cadre of anti-American insurgents who could make trouble in the future. Their goal, military officials admit, is to make America relive the nightmares of Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia and erode U.S. domestic support for the war. "The Arab press says: 'We drove them out of Beirut, we drove them out of Somalia; you know we'll drive them out of Baghdad,"' General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said at a recent briefing. "They're not driving us out of anywhere."

To achieve a different outcome from the earlier fiascoes, experts say Washington needs not only savvy military tactics but also a parallel effort to create a sense of economic and political progress. "People have to have a sense things are getting better," says Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If we can do that, it will make it much more difficult for the opposition to recruit new members."

What can the U.S. realistically do to contain the Iraqi insurgency? For starters, the Pentagon is thinking about reshuffling the mix of forces it has in the country now. The heavy-armor warfare specialists who took Baghdad are fine for fighting conventional battles but not small bands of out-of-uniform mischief-makers toting rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Some heavy tanks, which can withstand RPGs and land mines, will still be needed to protect convoys. But the coalition needs more light infantry, trained for this kind of combat at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. More of them are likely to be deployed as the heavy units are rotated out. "We need different kinds of forces," Abizaid acknowledges.

Some light troops already are in the battle theater. Putting constant pressure on the guerrillas, these infantry units frequently conduct as many as two dozen raids a day and hundreds of patrols, leading to arrests of scores of suspects. U.S. forces often discuss tactics with their British counterparts, who, thanks to service in Northern Ireland, have a lot of experience dealing with counterinsurgencies. The fast operations pace is consistent with British doctrine, which calls for "surprise, tempo, and overwhelm and unhinge the insurgent," according to an article by retired British Army Brigadier Gavin Bulloch.

A few hundred civil-affairs and psychological operations experts also may be needed. Their role: to convince Iraqis at the village level that Washington is there to help and to elicit critical intelligence to root out guerrilla cells. "I'm not so sure the numbers of people are critical so much as the intelligence capability," says Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense expert at Washington's Brookings Institution.

In a lesson the British learned in Northern Ireland and Oman, the troops use arrests rather than firefights to avoid TV footage of bloodied Iraqi civilians. "Using the minimum force required" is critical to swaying popular sentiment, says Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

America's track record in such ventures isn't encouraging. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. forces demonstrated an ability to adapt. The Mosul operation shows intelligence is improving. And September 11 produced a steely resolve in the Bush Administration. This is one guerrilla campaign the U.S. can't afford to lose.

By Stan Crock

With Kerry Capell in London, Stephanie Anderson Forest in Dallas, and bureau reports

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