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Published: Saturday, 5/6/2006

Iraq takes a positive turn

ABU Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda chieftain in Iraq (or maybe not, see below), is changing tactics, said London's Sunday Times.

Al-Zarqawi "is attempting to set up his own mini-army and move away from individual suicide attacks to a more organized resistance movement," wrote Michael Smith.

Col. John Gronski of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard indicated why the change in tactics isn't such a good idea. Colonel Gronski is commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the Pennsylvania Guard's 28th Infantry Division, stationed in Ar Ramadi.

Iraqi troops supported by Colonel Gronski's soldiers killed more than 100 insurgents in a battle last week, Colonel Gronski told CNN. Two Iraqi soldiers died in the battle. No Americans were killed.

The battle started when coalition forces noticed insurgents removing weapons from a train station in the southeastern part of the city. Colonel Gronski slammed them with an air strike, and then the Iraqi troops moved in.

"The Iraqi army is conducting aggressive operations here based on human intelligence from the people of Ramadi themselves," Colonel Gronski said.

A 50-to-1 exchange ratio against you is not a good thing for a guerrilla force.

Most guerrilla wars are not successful. In those that have been successful, guerrillas attacked their enemy's weaknesses, not his strength. Al-Qaeda's change in tactics abandons their strengths and plays into ours.

The most effective insurgent weapon against American troops has been the roadside bomb, or IED. They're hard to detect, only small numbers of insurgents are required to place them, and ambushes can be triggered from relative safety.

The most effective insurgent weapon against the Iraqi army and police has been the suicide bomber. The suicide bomber has also been the principal means by which al-Qaeda has tried to stir up sectarian conflict, and its chief propaganda weapon.

By massing for conventional guerrilla attacks, insurgents are easier to detect, and become lucrative targets for coalition firepower. The Ramadi battle was especially lopsided. But every firefight with U.S. troops - and almost every firefight with Iraqi soldiers - has ended badly for the insurgents.

So why the change in tactics? It could be that al-Zarqawi is an idiot. The manner in which he has alienated former allies among Iraq's Sunnis suggests so. But the Sunday Times' Mr. Smith said he has run out of options:

"Faced with a shortage of foreign fighters willing to undertake suicide missions, Zarqawi wants to turn his group into a more traditional force mounting coordinated guerrilla raids on coalition targets," said Mr. Smith, who attributed his information to unnamed "U.S. intelligence sources."

Only a relative handful of zealots are required to keep the suicide bombs exploding, and the people who blow themselves up needn't have much military skill. If al-Qaeda in Iraq is running short of these, it is in desperate straits.

It's important to remember that though al-Qaeda (thanks to the suicide bombers) has been responsible for most of the bloodshed in Iraq, it accounts for only a small proportion of the total number of insurgents. Most are ex-Baathists still holding a torch for Saddam Hussein.

But those among the Iraqi insurgents who think they can quit the fight without fear of prosecution by the government, or persecution by Shias and Kurds out for revenge, are exploring means to do so. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani said Monday his security adviser has met with representatives of seven armed groups and is optimistic they will lay down their arms.

Meanwhile, "red on red" violence is increasing. Sunni tribes once supportive of the insurgency have formed the "Anbar Revenge Brigades" to hunt down al-Qaeda operatives in the province.

The Anbar Revenge Brigades were formed in response to the assassination of tribal leaders by al-Qaeda in a futile effort to keep Sunnis from cooperating with the government.

That this heavy-handed intimidation of erstwhile allies has backfired is indicated by the al-Qaeda announcement April 2 that "the Iraqi resistance's high command asked Zarqawi to give up his political role because of several mistakes he made."

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served as President Clinton's drug czar and has been sharply critical of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war, recently returned from a trip to Iraq.

He concluded: "The foreign jihadist fighters have been defeated as a strategic and operational threat to creation of an Iraqi government."

This opera ain't over, but the fat lady is warming up.



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