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Insurgency seen forcing change in Iraq strategy

New aim to bring Sunnis into fold

WASHINGTON -- Military operations in Iraq have not succeeded in weakening the insurgency, and Iraq's government, with US support, is now seeking a political reconciliation among the nation's ethnic and tribal factions as the only viable route to stability, according to US military officials and private specialists.

Two years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Iraq conflict has evolved into a classic guerrilla war, they argue. Outbreaks of fighting are followed by periods of relative calm and soon thereafter, a return to rampant violence. Despite significant guerrilla setbacks and optimistic predictions by a host of American commanders earlier this year, the Sunni-backed insurgency remains as strong as ever, forcing American officials and their Iraqi allies to seek a political solution to the bloodshed. Pentagon officials and current members of the military interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity.

''We are not going to win the unconditional surrender from the insurgents and have no choice but to somehow bring them into society," said retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes, an Iraq war veteran who is now at the government-funded US Institute for Peace. ''To think there will be one climactic military event to end this is foolish. Those who cling to that don't understand."

Indeed, recent comments to that effect by Vice President Dick Cheney -- who said on May 31 that the insurgency was in its ''last throes" -- took many US officials and analysts by surprise, Pentagon officials and others with extensive knowledge of the war said in a series of interviews. The available data, they said, simply do not support such a claim.

''That is the most extreme form of wishful thinking," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ''There is simply no basis for making that statement."

New US government analyses suggest that the insurgents -- led by Sunni nationalists, remnants of Hussein's police state, and foreign extremists waging holy war -- have vastly more staying power than previously thought.

Following the successful American offensive in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah last fall, which killed at least 1,000 insurgents, there was a dramatic reduction in attacks, according to US military officials. After Fallujah, some US commanders and Pentagon planners had expressed optimism that US troop levels could be reduced following Iraqi elections. But since the Jan. 31 Iraqi elections, the insurgents, relying on steady streams of funding and weapons, new recruits, and staging areas in Syria and possibly Iran, have struck back with a vengeance and US force levels have remained constant.

Despite US estimates that it kills or captures between 1,000 and 3,000 insurgents a month, the number of daily attacks is going back up. Down to about 30 to 40 a day in February, attacks are now up to at least 70 per day, according to statistics of US Central Command. The insurgency has demonstrated a keen ability to shift its tactics in the face of persistent US and Iraqi battlefield victories.

An internal Army report in April said that rather than what some saw as a drop in the number of daily attacks earlier this year, the insurgents had simply shifted their focus away from US forces to attacks on more vulnerable targets, which were not being fully tallied at the time.

''The insurgency is still mounting an effort comparable to where they were a year ago," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and specialist on counterinsurgency operations who directs the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank in Washington. ''We do something we think will change things, but a month or two later casualties and the level of violence are back to where they were."

So far this year, nearly 1,000 members of Iraq's police and security forces have been killed in attacks, almost as many as the total for the previous year and half, according to Pentagon figures.

US military officials have documented more disturbing trends.

The number of attacks involving suicide bombers, for example, rose from 25 percent in February to more than 50 percent in April, according to estimates provided by Pentagon officials who asked not to be named. The first two weeks of May saw 21 suicide attacks in Baghdad alone; there were just 25 in all of 2004. The data have also been compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which summarizes the same military field reports.

Meanwhile, on average two US soldiers continue to die each day. Many more are wounded, and untold thousands of Iraqi civilians are being caught in the crossfire. As of yesterday, 1,688 Americans have died since the US-led invasion. Four US soldiers were killed yesterday in two separate attacks.

A major reason why the insurgency has remained so undeterred, US and Iraqi officials believe, is the continued, if passive, support it is receiving from large parts of Iraq's Sunni minority.

Specialists say they believe Iraq's estimated 5 million Sunnis fear that the country's government, dominated by Shi'ites and Kurds, will exact revenge on them for decades of Hussein's brutal rein. There are only 17 Sunni members in the 275-person Iraqi National Assembly.

Meanwhile, a recent internal poll conducted for the US-led coalition found that nearly 45 percent of the population supported the insurgent attacks, making accurate intelligence difficult to obtain. Only 15 percent of those polled said they strongly supported the US-led coalition.

The war's steady cycle of US and Iraqi offensives, insurgent pullbacks, and resurgent enemy attacks, has led the new Iraqi government -- with US backing -- to make overtures through Sunni intermediaries in recent days to some elements of the insurgency.

The talks are intended to break the logjam, seeking the insurgents' agreement to give up their arms in return for greater participation in the political process. The talks between Iraq's new government and the Sunni intermediaries continued yesterday in Baghdad, administration officials said.

US and Iraqi officials maintain that some insurgents -- particularly the foreign extremists led by Al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- cannot be negotiated with because they have too much blood on their hands. However, large segments may be willing to join the political process if they are assured they will not become targets of the new government.

Indeed, one positive sign, US and Iraqi officials assert, is that the representatives of the insurgents have even agreed to sit down face to face, something they had previously been unwilling to do.

Critics of the US war in Iraq view the US support for the overtures as a positive sign that the Bush administration, along with its Iraqi allies, is prepared to change its approach.

''It appears that the administration is realizing that you can't fight 15 percent of the country forever," said Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Lowell and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. ''The generals I talk to on the ground in Iraq clearly understand that the vast majority of support for the insurgency doesn't come from 'dead-enders' but hundreds of thousands of Sunnis who are distrustful of the political process but could be convinced to put down their arms and get involved."

''The insurgents are getting a lot of passive support," said Hughes. ''A lot of Sunnis know there are insurgents in their town. We've got to get the Sunnis off the fence."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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