A general voices new confidence on Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 28-Dec-03 | Author: John Burns| Source: The New York Times

British officer says capture of Saddam has changed outlook

BAGHDAD - A British general commanding an area of southern Iraq with five million inhabitants said Tuesday that Saddam Hussein’s capture and other changes — including progress in restoring oil installations, power stations and running water — had fostered a new confidence that the U.S.-led occupation force can achieve its objective of building a stable Iraq and handing the country back to its people.

‘‘Is this doable? You’d better believe it,’’ said Major General Graeme Lamb, commander of the mainly European multinational division that controls southeastern Iraq, from a headquarters in Basra. Lamb, 50, who commands an 11-nation contingent of 13,000 troops in an area covering about a quarter of Iraq, spoke as he prepared to hand over his command to another British general.

The British commander said he spoke principally from experience in the south, which has a population that is 85 percent Shiite Muslims, Iraq’s largest population group. But he based his conclusions, too, he said, on firsthand knowledge of conditions faced by U.S. generals commanding 120,000 troops in military districts that account for the other 20 million Iraqis, including Baghdad and the restive Sunni Muslim regions north and west of the capital. It is in these regions that more than 90 percent of the attacks on allied forces have occurred.

On his arrival in Iraq in June, with much of the country in turmoil, Lamb said, he concluded that ‘‘this is going to be a lot more difficult than we realized.’’ But reporters and others ‘‘who had us dead and buried,’’ he said, should know that months of work on oil installations, power and water-pumping stations, concrete plants, farming output, hospitals, schools and other aspects of Iraq’s collapsing infrastructure, as well the psychological impact among Iraqis of the capture of Saddam and the killing of his two sons, had changed the picture.

‘‘I sense that we’re now well in the turn, but haven’t yet turned the corner,’’ he said.

Lamb, a veteran of combat in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf War, Sierra Leone, the Balkans and Afghanistan, described himself as a ‘‘hard-boiled realist,’’ and avoided any predictions of how long it might take to withdraw allied forces, or what toll they may take before they do. But his positive tone appeared to mesh with a growing confidence in the U.S. military command that something fundamental changed with the seizure of Saddam on Dec. 13.

An American officer at Lamb’s news conference, who is a member of the staff around General Ricardo Sanchez, the overall allied military commander, said there had been only six attacks by anti-coalition insurgents across the country on Monday, the lowest figure since May. On Tuesday night, the air in central Baghdad was punctuated by what appeared to be the distant firing of artillery shells, or possibly bombing strikes, in areas of south Baghdad that have been a focus of raids on suspected insurgent strongholds by the army’s 1st Armored Division.

Sanchez as well as other American commanders, said that after Saddam’s arrest they had braced for a ‘‘spike’’ in ambushes, roadside explosions and other attacks, including suicide bombings, as the insurgents sought to prove that they would continue fighting. But that, said the U.S. officer who spoke about the lowered level of attacks this month, did not happen.

The average number of daily attacks in December, the American officer said, was 19, compared with more than 40 a day in November, the month with by far the highest casualties since the collapse of Saddam’s government in April. Then, 81 American soldiers diedcq, nearly half of them in helicopter crashes caused by, or tentatively attributed to, insurgent ground fire. The total number of American deaths announced in December so far is a fraction of the casualties in November.

A rush of new raids by American forces, some based on intelligence revelations about insurgent cells the Americans found in documents taken from Saddam’s last hideout, have resulted in the capture of nearly 250 Iraqis suspected of insurgent activity.

In one of the raids announced by the U.S. command, in the early hours of Tuesday, a cordon-and-search operation the 82nd Airborne Division in Falluja, an insurgent stronghold 55 kilometers, or 35 miles, west of Baghdad, troops seized 26 ‘‘enemy personnel,’’ including two former Iraqi generals and a former Special Forces colonel, a command statement said.

The mood among American commanders remains far from triumphal, and many continue to say the occupa tion forces face a roller-coaster of attacks, with the possibility of spectacular strikes against American or Iraqi targets before the virtual impossibility of Saddam being restored to power sinks in.

Another motivation for continuing attacks, these commanders say, is to upset Bush administration plans to hand over sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government on June 30 next year, on a schedule leading to elections for a fully representative government by December 2005.

For American commanders schooled in war colleges with perspectives rooted in Vietnam, it is a conviction that no officer at war should ever say there is light at the end of the tunnel, at least not until success is assured.

But privately, some in the American command think the war’s paradigm may change in the aftermath Saddam’s arrest, with Sunni Muslim militants who have fought for his restoration realizing that continuing attacks against the American-led force could weaken, if not drive out, the only power that now stands between the Sunni minority in Iraq and a potentially domineering, or even vengeful, Shiite majority.

Contrarily, these officers say, Shiite leaders who until now have worried about the risk of Saddam and his terror coming back, and regarded the American-led coalition force as the only bulwark against that, could gain confidence now that they can push the Americans for political concessions.

These could include demands from Shiite militants for faster progress to political arrangements that would assure Shiite domination, including an accelerated schedule for popular elections, and the drafting of a new constitution by an elected government, instead of an indirectly elected assembly, as is planned now.

The officers who worry about such developments say they base their views on an abstract analysis, not on hard intelligence indicating that these shifts have begun among the Sunnis and Shiites or are even contemplated. But if they are right, these officers say, the future here may be more complicated politically, and perhaps even as violent, as the months that have passed since the invasion.