Iraq: A Shift in the Insurgency

10 MINS READApr 15, 2005 | 02:23 GMT
On April 11, insurgents attacked a U.S. Marine base near Al Qaim, close to the Iraqi-Syrian border, using suicide bombers and small arms. This attack exemplifies a new tactic that Iraq's insurgents have used in recent weeks: Instead of attacking U.S. and Iraqi security forces with remotely detonated or suicide bomber-delivered improvised explosive devices, as they previously did, insurgents are engaging them in frontal assaults. The insurgents have been paying a high price for these attacks and have yet to win a decisive victory, but are sure to continue with these head-on attacks as well as their usual ambushes.
Iraqi insurgents have started using a new tactic in their attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces. An April 2 attack against Abu Ghraib prison and an April 11 attack against a U.S. Marine base near Al Qaim were head-on attacks — a departure from the insurgents' previous strategy of using remotely detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or suicide bombers, or launching hit-and-run attacks. The insurgents — perhaps jihadists, with a smaller Sunni nationalist cadre — have paid dearly in terms of casualties in these attacks. However, the change in tactics shows they are willing to expand their repertoire and keep confronting U.S. and Iraqi troops. As night fell on Baghdad on April 2, insurgents launched an ambitious attack against the U.S. forward-operating base in Abu Ghraib prison in western Baghdad. The attack was well-planned and -executed, with suicide bombers and squad-sized units supported by mortar fire attacking all four sides of the base. Insurgents took and occupied at least one guard tower before a rapid response team and AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships cleared them out. In a statement issued after the attack, the insurgents said the battle lasted all night; U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said the fighting was over in two hours. The day after the assault against Abu Ghraib, al Qaeda in Iraq released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack and saying it was the beginning of a campaign against the coalition. The statement dubbed the campaign "Operation Abu Anas al-Shami" — named after the spiritual leader of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) group who was killed in a September 2004 U.S. airstrike — and promised more attacks in the near future. The organization made good on its promise nine days later at Al Qaim, a dusty town on the Euphrates River. Located on the Syrian border, Al Qaim is in Anbar province — a desolate, mostly desert area and a hotbed of insurgent activity. With its location near the border and on the river, Al Qaim has been a hub for smuggling people, goods and weapons across the desert for centuries. On April 11, insurgents attacked U.S. Marine forward-operations base Camp Gannon, located just outside Al Qaim. Insurgents attempted to breach the gate with suicide car bombers, followed by an attack with small arms. The Marines repelled the assault but had to call in air support. That battle also was detrimental to the insurgents, with CENTCOM reporting at least 30 attackers killed. These attacks demonstrated the insurgents' change in tactics — from using roadside bombs or suicide bombers to engaging U.S. forces head-on with small arms. Most significantly, insurgents have attacked fixed U.S. positions, which are difficult targets because they are set up to repel attacks and give the defenders every advantage. In addition, the U.S. bases house hundreds, or in the case of Abu Ghraib, thousands of troops, giving the defenders an automatic numerical advantage. In another bold departure from their usual tactics, the insurgents — who normally confine their operations to daylight attacks — mounted their assault against Abu Ghraib at night. These head-on attacks usually end with very high casualties among the insurgents. When a Kentucky National Guard convoy was attacked March 20 south of Baghdad, two platoon-sized units of insurgents were rendered combat-ineffective when more than 50 percent of the fighters were killed. The attacks — especially the Abu Ghraib assault — could be an attempt by the insurgents to curry favor with the Sunni nationalist leadership, whose support they need to operate effectively. For example, in the Abu Ghraib attack, the insurgents did their homework — they recognized the U.S. facility's vulnerabilities and exploited them. They would have had to surveil the prison and probably had inside information — possibly from Sunni-nationalist sources. The jihadist insurgents, being mostly foreigners, would not have the intelligence capabilities to be able to place agents inside a facility such as Abu Ghraib. If the jihadists are getting intelligence from at least one faction of the Sunni-nationalist insurgents, it indicates cooperation between the two groups — at least in this case. The jihadists need Sunni support, and that support could be eroding as the political process takes shape in Iraq. Recent developments in the Iraqi political scene could affect the direction of the insurgency. On April 1, Sunni clerics issued a fatwa compelling the Sunnis to join the Iraqi security forces. This indicates a significant split in the Sunni attitude toward the transitional government and the political process. Sunni clerics' issuing the fatwa shows that at least some segments of the Sunni community favor participation in the political process. If this trend continues, the jihadists could lose their valuable Sunni support base — which would be disastrous for the insurgency. Thus, they could try to form alliances with at least some Sunni-nationalist insurgent factions. Difficulties with getting their bombs to hit their targets could contribute to the insurgents' change in tactics. Roadside IEDs — one of the insurgents' primary weapons — have been detonating too soon or too late. When this happens, they miss their targets and usually end up killing Iraqi civilians, which in turn hurts the insurgents' support base. These difficulties could be caused by poor-quality bombs or countermeasures the coalition forces have employed. U.S. forces have been using jammers to prevent remotely detonated bombs from exploding near passing convoys. This is an example of measure and countermeasure that has been going on since the beginning of the insurgency. At first, insurgents detonated roadside bombs by means of a detonator hardwired to the explosives. U.S. troops quickly learned to follow the wire from the site of the blast back to the detonator, which would often lead them to the insurgents. Once the insurgents were found, they usually met their end. To counter this, the insurgents began using remotely detonated IEDs to attack U.S. convoys, eliminating the need for the telltale wire. The coalition's use of jammers has been fairly successful in countering that tactic. Fewer competent bombmakers in the insurgency would account for the poor quality of their bombs. Bombmaking is a delicate and intricate process and requires a very specific skill set. Good bombmakers develop over time and are — unlike suicide bombers, who are spent quickly — very valuable to their organizations. If the Iraqi insurgency is in fact experiencing a shortage of expert bombmakers, it could be because of the recent increase in arrests being made and the increasing numbers of suspected insurgents being detained. As more arrests are made and more insurgents are killed in combat by U.S. troops and the increasingly capable Iraqi security forces, their cells lose leaders and are compelled to fragment into smaller units to avoid capture. As the smaller cells split off, members with very little or no practical experience in the art of bombmaking have to take on the role in order to supply the new cell with IEDs. In an insurgency, both sides try to win hearts and minds. One motivation for attacking U.S. forces conventionally might be the potential for generating significant propaganda value. If insurgents are able to rout U.S. troops, and even temporarily occupy their position, the images of tearing down the flag and parading prisoners or hostages through the streets would have a very real propaganda value to the insurgents. They could be considering the effect that such images had on the U.S. mission to Somalia in 1994, and hoping to reproduce it in Iraq. The likelihood of such events is remote, however. U.S. bases are heavily fortified against suicide bombers and conventional attacks. U.S. forces in Iraq have much more hardware and support — such as heavy tanks and helicopter gunships — at their disposal than did the mission in Mogadishu. Of course, this does not mean the enemy will stop trying. Although the insurgents in Baghdad probably never actually intended to overrun and occupy Abu Ghraib — the facility is huge and defended by thousands of soldiers and Marines who can rely on air support from helicopters and AC-130 Specter gunships if necessary — but that they attacked at all carried symbolic value. Attacking the notorious prison, which was made infamous by the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal, carries much more symbolic value than attacking an anonymous convoy or patrol. By staging such a bold operation, the insurgents might have hoped to sow doubt in the minds of ordinary Iraqis about the power of the U.S. troops and the degree of control they have over the country. There also is the possibility that the change in tactics comes out of desperation — trying to regain the momentum after the battle of Al Fallujah in November 2004 — or is an effort to stave off defeat, similar to the German Spring Offensive of 1918 or the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in 1944. This is more than likely a continuation of established long-term patterns in the insurgency. Although U.S. generals have been pointing out the decrease in insurgent attacks and talking openly about withdrawing troops beginning in 2006, they are careful to point out that the insurgency remains a threat. The recent attacks back up these caveats. Certainly U.S. forces have gotten much better at protecting themselves and have developed countermeasures to convoy attacks, which would account for the reduction in casualties. However, the lower number of combat fatalities the Pentagon points to as a sign that the insurgency is fading fails to account for the number of total casualties, such as troops wounded so badly that they can no longer serve combat duty or have to leave the military altogether. Rather than decreasing the number of attacks, the insurgents might be concentrating their efforts on conventional assaults.
The insurgency's new ferocity follows a pattern — spikes and lulls reflect periods of intense combat, followed by a reduction in operations to allow for regrouping and re-equipping. The pattern shows a spike in attacks about every five days for IED ambushes and suicide bombers. On a larger scale, there are lulls of several months before the insurgents can mount another major offensive. For example, in 2004 there were two major insurgent campaigns: April through May, and then from late July through the end of January 2005, ending after the Jan. 30 elections. The insurgents have regrouped, and the lull after that offensive is now over. So far the operational cycle for coordinated head-on assaults in this new offensive is approximately 10 to 15 days between major attacks. More of these types of attacks probably will occur before the insurgents have to regroup. Eventually, Operation Abu Anas al-Shami will come to a close as the insurgents expend their resources in costly frontal assaults against U.S. positions. After the current offensive is over, there will be another lull, followed by another offensive, as well as lulls and offensives on the coalition side. Historically, this is how guerrilla wars have been conducted.

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