U.S. changes tactics in Iraq

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

WASHINGTON The U.S. military's counteroffensive in Iraq features a major shift in tactics: aggressive combat against guerrilla hide-outs and training camps using American precision bombs and missiles rarely seen since the war last spring.

The new attacks have been paired with a simultaneous American pullback from some areas, including at least one town, to let Iraqis take over more dangerous face-to-face patrols.

The two tracks are part of a Pentagon strategy to both discredit and defeat the unexpectedly tough guerrilla resistance while reducing the number of American casualties. The shift came last week, at the same time U.S. authorities announced plans to more quickly hand over political power to Iraqis.

''This is not evidence we are winning. This is evidence we are changing tactics because of the threat,'' said Anthony Cordesman of the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The most visible change is the stepped-up military assault against the insurgents suspected of being behind recent attacks on Americans and against the Iraqi and coalition forces helping them. The show of force is meant to demoralize the insurgents and send the message the Americans are all but invincible militarily.

''We're going to go ahead and take the fight to the enemy using everything in our arsenal necessary,'' the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack, said Tuesday.

The U.S. has resumed using heavy weaponry, which had mostly been idle since the end of major combat in May. American warplanes have dropped satellite-guided bombs on suspected insurgent safe houses, including one-ton bombs that are among the largest in the American inventory.

Tanks and Bradley armored vehicles have pounded insurgent positions with their big guns. Army forces have used artillery and mortars to respond to rocket attacks by insurgents. And the Army has fired short-range, satellite-guided missiles.

American forces had been relying mainly on patrols and raids, not heavy weapons.

''We're seeing the early phases of a U.S.-coalition counteroffensive, the first of which is a demonstration of power,'' said retired Army Gen. William Nash, who commanded U.S. forces in Bosnia and an armored brigade in the 1991 Gulf War. ''I think there will be much more to it as we go on.''

The counteroffensive also is meant to show skeptical Iraqis that the United States is serious about staying and defeating the insurgents.

''We think the general mood of the country and the cooperation we will receive will improve, the more aggressive we get in pursuit of the enemy,'' said Dan Senor, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led civilian administration in Iraq.

The U.S. attacks are focused in areas where officials believe most of the resistance is centered. In other areas, American forces are handing over security duties to Iraqis many of whom have had little training.

''What you are watching is a far more complex strategy,'' said Cordesman, who visited Iraq this month and wrote a report critical of U.S. operations. ''You've got far better human intelligence, far more targeted raids. You're moving from general U.S. patrols to more reliance on Iraqi police and joint patrols.''

The handover to Iraqi security forces has been bumpy in the central Iraqi town of Samara. Iraqi forces there pleaded with U.S. Army troops to return after the Americans abruptly left over the weekend.

The stepped-up military attacks risk alienating the very Iraqis the Americans want to win over. Indiscriminate attacks that kill civilians a higher risk with the use of conventional artillery and other unguided weapons could drive more Iraqis to become insurgents.

''We're going to be as compassionate as we can, minimize collateral damage during a fight,'' Swannack said.

The shift in tactics also is meant to lessen casualties on the American side. After Iraqis shot down at least two U.S. helicopters, pilots began flying lower and faster to better avoid such threats. The U.S. military also is hiring Iraqi drivers for supply convoys to keep more Americans out of harm's way.

''There is an element of unadulterated force that's required in these situations, though it has to be put together with a sophisticated approach,'' said Nash, the retired general now with the Council on Foreign Relations. ''It's too soon to say if this is right or wrong or good tactics.''

Matt Kelley covers military issues for The Associated Press.

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