Iraq insurgents switch strategy, go for major attacks

Strategists who keep close tabs on the war in Iraq are scratching their heads over a sudden shift to large-scale attacks on American bases by the insurgents who heretofore have primarily bedeviled U.S. forces with their roadside bombs and hit-and-run attacks.

Just when military commanders in Iraq were beginning to feel optimistic about the marked fall in the number of terrorist incidents and attacks in the wake of the January elections, the insurgents twice so far this month have staged well planned and coordinated mass attacks on U.S. facilities at Abu Ghraib prison and a Marine base on the Syrian border.

In the case of the remote and isolated Marine base at Husaybah, the insurgents massed a force estimated to number more than 100 men and distracted the defenders with mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks as a dump truck loaded with explosives blew apart a roadblock at the entrance to the base.

Marine defenders, their ears ringing from that blast, then saw a bright red fire truck, loaded with propane tanks filled with explosives, come thundering through the thick smoke aiming at the gap opened by the dump truck suicide bomber. A Marine sentry poured fire into the fire truck and it exploded 40 yards short.

The insurgents then attacked in force, attempting to overrun the American base. They were thrown back after losing an estimated 19 killed and 15 wounded as fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships summoned by the Marines raked their positions. Only three Marines were lightly wounded.

The attack at Husaybah on April 11 came a week after a similar mass insurgent attack on the prison at Abu Ghraib, just outside the capital of Baghdad, which injured 44 Americans guarding or working in the prison. That attack was preceded by a fierce enemy bombardment of American positions by 80mm and 120mm mortars, as well as twin suicide car bombings aimed at breaching the prison wall.

Two columns of 30 to 40 insurgents each advanced directly against the American Marines guarding the perimeter. The attack was so fierce the Marines were forced to pull back. The attack lasted three hours, beginning at sunrise, and ended with an estimated 50 killed and wounded out of an enemy force of about 60 to 70 men.

American commanders long ago recognized the ability of the terrorist leaders to adapt quickly to changing conditions and exploit any perceived weakness. Some U.S. commanders privately hoped that this day would come when the poorly trained terrorists would go head-to-head with American regulars. If terrorists come out in the open in large numbers, it makes it easier to find them and kill them.

The insurgent/terrorist leaders score points for being able to pull a company-size attack force together quickly in so open and barren a terrain, and to plan and coordinate a complicated, precisely timed assault. But it’s good their fighters are all volunteers for martyrdom. When a hundred of them charge a hard-core battalion of 700-plus Marines, that’s what awaits.

Some Pentagon officials say that the bigger scale attacks reflect the frustration of terrorist commander and al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab Zarqawi at the lack of attention the roadside bombs receive at this stage of the war. Zarqawi figured that staging bigger attacks directly on his enemy would get more publicity.

One military analyst, who asked that his name not be used, told Knight Ridder that the insurgents displayed a greater level of coordination and synchronization than the Americans had seen in the past.

“I see (the attack on the Marine base) as both a signal of resolve and perhaps an opportunity,” the analyst said. “The good news was that the Marines responded rapidly and effectively.”

That analyst added, “The argument about ‘bigger targets equals easier to find and hit’ to a degree fails to explain if we are looking as hard as we should be, how did the ‘bigger targets’ get formed up without detection?”

The strategists will be watching to see if these attacks continue in the face of the terrorist failure to overrun any of their targets, or whether Zarqawi opts to drop back to the daily round of car bombings and roadside bombs.

Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.” Readers may write to him at: Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005-3994.