BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military is fighting the most complex guerrilla war in its history, with 140,000 American soldiers trained for conventional warfare flailing against a thicket of insurgent groups with competing aims and no supreme leader.

The three dozen or so guerrilla bands agree on little beyond forcing the Americans out of Iraq.

In other U.S. wars, the enemy was clear. In Vietnam, a visible leader – Ho Chi Minh – led a single army fighting to unify the country under socialism. But in Iraq, the disorganized insurgency has no single commander, no political wing and no dominant group.

U.S. troops can’t settle on a single approach to fight groups whose goals and operations vary. And it’s hard to sort combatants from civilians in a chaotic land where large parts of some communities support the insurgents and others are too afraid to risk their lives to help foreigners.

“It’s more complex and challenging than any other insurgency the United States has fought,” aid Bruce Hoffman, a RAND counterinsurgency expert who served as an adviser to the U.S.-led occupation administration.

Insurgents aren’t striving for revolution as much as they are trying to spoil the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi regime by inflicting as much pain as possible on the United States and its Iraqi and foreign allies.

“We want every U.S. dog to leave the country,” said an insurgent leader in Fallujah who identified himself as Abu Thar, a 45-year-old former colonel in the Iraqi army.

Beyond that, the estimated 20,000 insurgents have little in common, although groups have occasionally work together in temporary alliances of convenience. U.S. commanders describe the war as a “compound insurgency” sorted into four groups with different tactics and goals.

Three are made up of Sunni Muslims, almost all of whom are Iraqis. A fourth group is radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, formed of Shiite Muslims, Iraq’s largest social grouping.

The largest insurgent bloc is composed of Iraqi nationalists fighting to reclaim secular power lost when Saddam Hussein was deposed in April 2003.

The second is a growing faction of hardcore fighters aligned with terrorist groups, mainly that led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The U.S. military believes they want to turn Iraq into an anti-Western stronghold that would export Islamic revolution to other countries in the region.

A third group consists of conservative Iraqis who want to install an Islamic theocracy, but who stay away from terror tactics like car bombings and the beheading of hostages.

The fourth, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, seeks to make the cleric the nationwide Shiite leader.

Ordinary criminals also pitch in on attacks when they are paid. And gangsters who abduct people regularly sell their hostages to terror groups, which have beheaded some.

Hoffman and other independent experts feel the insurgents are succeeding, with death tolls spiraling and a guerrilla-induced climate of fear that has reduced the U.S.-led rebuilding effort to a shambles.

Abu Thar, the former colonel who was interviewed by an Iraqi reporter for The Associated Press inside insurgent-held Fallujah, gloated over his compatriots’ successes, saying U.S. leaders were publicly contradicting each other about the state of the war. He also said U.S. counterattacks that kill women and children are turning public opinion in the militants’ favor.

“We see the conflicting statements by the U.S. administration on Iraq as another sign of their defeat,” Abu Thar said. “More volunteers are coming to us because they are fed up with the humiliation and the misdeeds of the Americans. They feel it is a national and religious duty.”

Public opinion is the war’s central front and it is tilting against the Americans, said James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan and now a military analyst for RAND Corp.

“If we can’t protect the population, we can’t secure its trust and support,” Dobbins said. “If we or the Iraqi government lose that, we ultimately lose the war.”

U.S. military officers concede the situation is tough, but they say the intensity of the conflict could be much worse. And they argue that insurgents also alienate Iraqis with indiscriminate attacks – such as the car bombings Thursday in Baghdad that killed 35 children and nine adults.

Commanders say U.S. strategy focuses on boosting Iraqi government control while fighting only the most necessary battles.

“History is replete with insurgencies that failed,” one general said privately during a discussion of Iraq.

History is also replete with insurgencies that triumphed. Vietnamese guerrillas ousted the United States in 1973. Afghan militias similarly embarrassed the Soviet Union in 1989.

If Iraqi insurgents succeed in toppling the U.S.-backed government, analysts believe the stark differences in the groups’ goals could lead to a civil war that might break Iraq into rival fiefs.

Bad decisions by the U.S.-led occupation administration are widely blamed for stoking the war. Those cited most often are the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the banning of Saddam’s political leaders from public life, both of which are said to have converted potential allies into enemies.

Independent analysts say 16 months of escalating warfare by U.S. troops with little practical experience in fighting insurgents have made clear the difficulty of defeating militants who mount attacks while hiding and moving among civilians.

The analysts say the most promising chance for victory lies in U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. U.S. and Iraqi troops reclaimed the city of Samarra from insurgents over the weekend, but it’s unclear how much fighting was done by the Iraqis.

“The United States can buy the Iraqi government time to get organized, but the U.S. has become too unpopular and lost too much support among the population to be able to itself win a counterinsurgency campaign,” Dobbins said.

The U.S. military has few homegrown models for counterinsurgency success. Its last two major campaigns – in Somalia in 1993 and in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s – failed.

Both times, a tenacious enemy fought hard enough to force U.S. troops from its soil. No one has said Iraqi insurgents are as tough as the Communist Viet Cong, and the United States had little incentive to stay in Somalia once militias made things difficult.

“Vietnam was not easy, but it was certainly far less complex and more straightforward,” Hoffman said.

If the insurgents are unorganized and unfocused, their tactics are classic. Guerrilla wars often feature car bombings, assassinations and abductions in the early stages, said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

As the militants gain strength, they progress to fielding combat troops, Betts said. In Iraq, large formations of Iraqi insurgents have met with mixed success. U.S. commanders claim their troops killed more than 4,000 al-Sadr fighters in April and August. But Sunni fighters in Fallujah and other cities have mounted daring attacks and melted away with few killed.

AP-ES-10-04-04 1418EDT



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