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Old 09-18-2006, 07:10 PM   #1
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Progress, with caution, in Anbar Iraq

September 25, 2006
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Progress, with caution

In western Iraq, U.S. troops work to gain trust of locals, chip away at insurgency

By Sean D. Taylor - Staff Writer

RAWAH, Iraq - Sunni insurgents in Anbar province are "losing the fight strategically," but will not be defeated unless U.S. forces continue to fight them until Iraqi security forces can assume full responsiblity for the counter insurgency campaign here, say U.S. officers.

Unlike Baghdad, where rival sectarian militias devote much energy to attacking each other and the civilian population, here in the Sunni heartland U.S. and Iraqi forces are facing a classic insurgency, in which a tiny number of active combatants enjoy the passive support of at least 70 percent of the population.

The exact number of Sunni insurgents in any one area fluctuates as fighters move from town to town. But in this Euphrates River valley town and the surrounding area, with a population of about 20,000, the number is fewer than 100, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Matt Gray, intelligence technician with 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, which has operated in this area for the past year.

The estimate of Rawah's police chief, Capt. Mohammed Abdalwahab, is even lower: about 25.

Despite the attention focused on al-Qaida in Iraq's foreign fighters by U.S. leaders, non-Iraqis comprise less than 10 percent of the Sunni insurgency, Gray said. Those 10 percent hold positions at both ends of the insurgency chain of command: a few are leaders, but most are brought into the country to die as suicide car bombers.

"Every 'martyr' we've had in our [area of operations] has been a foreign fighter," said Capt. Andrew Decker, 4-14's intelligence officer. Those foreigners were mostly Syrians when the squadron first arrived in Rawah, but in the recent months young Saudis were showing up as would be suicide bombers.

Many were recruited believing they would fight coalition forces, only to be forced into roles as suicide bombers, according to Decker and Gray. "The foreign fighters that we've caught, when you talk to them, a large percentage have been unhappy," Gray said. "They've tried to go home, and their passports are taken away - they're funneled from one safe house to the other."

The Syrian regime of Bashir Assad is helping train and finance the foreign fighters moving across its borders into Iraq, according to unconfirmed intelligence reports, Decker said.

"We have gotten numerous reports that Syrian intelligence is supporting these guys," he said. He has seen Syrian border guards trying to facilitate the movement of insurgents into Iraq.

Syria's motives are clear, according to Decker and gray. The establishment of a successful democracy in Iraq would bode ill for not only the Syrian government, but its regional sponser, Iran, Gray said.

"The longer al-Qaida in Iraq keeps coalition forces tied up here, Syria feels less threatened [by] the prospect that we might invade them," Decker said. "Syria has a vested interest from their standpoint in supporting the insurgency."

For the low-level Iraqi Sunnies fighting on their own turf, money and power are more potent driving forces than religion, according to Gray and Decker.

"As they're conducting their attacks, they get paid," Gray said. "When you catch a lot of the thugs and ask them how often they go to mosque, they say, 'I'm a bad Muslim, I don't go to mosque,'" Gray said.

Task Force 4-14 officers estimate that 70 percent to 98 percent of the local population gives the insurgency "passive support," which they define as being unwilling to inform the coalition or Iraqi security forces of insurgent activity. However, for many Rawah residents, this "support" is nothing but fear of reprisal.

"They want to support us, but they fear retribution from those thugs and can't openly do it," he said.

However, there is another side to the local population's reluctance to help the coalition. Gray noted that the Iraqi army units in the area are filled largely with Shi'a troops recruited from elsewhere in Iraq and many Sunnis in this region don't view attacks on U.S. or Iraqi army troops as illegitimate.

Task Force 4-14 spent a year chipping away at this wall of "passive support," with some success. By establishing a local police force, fusing human and other sources of intelligence to identify trends and targets, waiting patiently before striking and always using force as a last resort, the U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies were able to gain credibility with the locals.

"The quality and number of people providing us information has gone up exponentially," Gray said in mid-July, although he acknowledged that these informants were still not giving U.S. troops advance notice of attacks.

Although most of the infrastructure of Rawah and the nearby city of Anah (population 30,000) was in good shape by Iraqi standards, the insurgents had destroyed the telephone system, depriving anyone who might want to help the coalition of an obvious means of communicating anonymously.

To get around this, TF 4-14 set up two e-mail addresses - and - to allow residents to send information without the insurgents knowing. An average of one tip per day rolled in, but then the insurgents burned down every Internet cafe in the two towns, which, in a region in which home Internet access is a rarity, effectively shut down that source of intelligence.

Despite this and other setbacks, by the time TF 4-14 left Rawah in July, the overall trend lines were all moving in a positive direction.

"We average under 30 [insurgent attacks] a month, and we were at 50 or 60 when we first got here," Gray said. The economy and the population were booming, with 50 to 60 new homes having been built since TF 4-14 arrived.

Asked what the key factor behind that progress is, Decker doesn't hesitate. "Security," he says.

Insurgency still looms

It is statistics like these, and the improving relations with the townspeople, that lead Gray and Decker to declare the insurgency in the Rawah area "weaker" than when TF 4-14 arrived. While the insurgents are still able to recruit their foot soldiers "fairly easily," Gray said, " it's getting a lot harder" for them to replace bomb makers and leaders killed or captured by coalition forces.

"They're absolutely losing the fight strategically," Decker said.

Nevertheless, the insurgents strategic goal remains "to have American forces leave Iraq in such a manner that it displays to the world that they were successful in their insurgency, that they, in effect won the war," Decker said.

The death of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an outcome for which the U.S. committed its most elite forces and invested hundreds of millions of dollars during an almost three-year manhunt, has not resulted in any noticeable decrease in insurgent activity, according to Decker and Gray.

The insurgents continue to move men and material down the Euphrates with relative impunity. "We've got no capability right now to interdict the river," Freitag said. "That's certainly a frustration point for me."

"The key to success," for the coalition, Decker said, was whether the U.S. is willing to continue fighting the war until the Iraqi security forces are ready to take over.

Marine Lt. Col. Ron Gridley, executive officer for Regimental Combat Team 7, to which TF 4-14 was attached, agreed. "It took us eight years to write our constitution in the States," Gridley said. "The question is, do the American people have the patience and the will to let this thing be successful?"

In Rawah, the next step is clear to Freitag: Coalition forces must conduct an information operations campaign to "drive a wedge between the [insurgents] and the local population."

He said coalition forces have to demonstrate to the locals how insurgents hurt them and how their security and quality of life would be improved through support for the coalition.

As he left a meeting with the Anah town council, the squadron commander stressed the importance of looking beyond a strategy that makes killing and capturing insurgents an end in itself.

"It can't be a solution of attrition warfare, because if that's the case, then we'll never frickin' leave," he said.
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