Who are the Insurgents?

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A while back, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed the insurgents who are making life so difficult for coalition forces, Iraqi authorities and anyone caught in the cross fire "dead-enders," losers from Saddam Hussein's regime with nothing left to do but go down fighting. U.S. military officials said the enemy fighters lacked organization and coordination. No one would say any of this now. American officials acknowledge that the insurgents are a potent and increasingly structured force. A former Saddam aide who is close to insurgents in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, agrees. What were once dispersed cells are now meeting weekly in the area, he tells TIME. At the first confab four weeks ago, he says, fighters traded intelligence about the location of U.S. bases, discussed future tactics and planned a series of attacks.

U.S. officials originally posited that many of the attackers were criminals Saddam had released from jail on the eve of the U.S. invasion as well as foreign terrorists allied with al-Qaeda. Now the Pentagon believes that the overwhelming majority are former Baath Party officials and other Saddam loyalists. Major General Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told the Washington Post last week he believed Saddam planned the insurgency in advance of the war. U.S. Central Command chief General John Abizaid dismissed the idea. According to the former Saddam aide, the deposed President is not leading the resistance nationally, but some cell leaders receive orders and money from him through intermediaries.

U.S. officials say leaders of the insurgents sometimes subcontract work to young, often unemployed, Iraqi males. According to some who have been captured, an attack on U.S. troops can bring as much as $1,000, five times that if G.I.s die. Abizaid said last week coalition forces are facing fewer than 5,000 insurgents in all. That figure, while based on interrogations of Iraqi fighters, is "little more than a smart guess," says a senior Pentagon official. Among the estimated 5,000, military officials say, are perhaps a couple of hundred foreigners who have infiltrated Iraq to confront the Americans. The former Saddam aide said he had met two Libyans who came to Iraq to join the battle, both of them veterans of the civil war in Sudan. cia briefers told a group of Senators in Washington last week that fighters who have arrived recently from Syria and Iran are more skilled than those who came earlier in the year. The briefers said Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda that the U.S. targeted during the fighting last spring, is "reconstituting" in northern Iraq.

By all accounts, the insurgency is getting smarter. "The enemy has learned to adjust to our tactics, techniques and procedures," Abizaid acknowledged last week. Early on in the guerrilla chapter of this war—when Iraqi fighters were attacking from close distances with light arms, rocket-propelled grenades (rpgs) and roadside bombs detonated by wire—coalition forces had a shot at running them down. In recent months, notes Lieut. Colonel George Krivo, a spokesman for the coalition military, the insurgents have started relying more on standoff weapons—mortars, rockets and bombs detonated by remote control—that enable them to get away more easily. Two fighters can set off a mortar, for instance, and speed "from the scene on motorbikes while the projectile is still in the air," he says. Baghdad's green zone, the compound where officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority work and live, came under mortar fire three times last week. After shooting at American helicopters without success for months, the fighters have used shoulder-fired rockets and rpgs to hit three choppers in the past three weeks, killing 22 soldiers. Two more Black Hawk helicopters crashed in Iraq last weekend, killing 17 Americans. Resistance fighters have begun to favor rpgs, which are aimed by eye and, unlike missiles, don't alert the helicopter that it is being tracked. This means the targeted chopper will not fire the flares that draw heat-seeking missiles away from the aircraft.

The former Saddam aide cites other improvements in tactics. He claims the material for the bomb used last week in Nasiriyah—which was aimed at Italian forces and killed 31 people—came from the warhead of a surface-to-air missile looted from an ammunition dump. U.S. forces had disabled the missile by taking out the booster that launches it but left the 2,200-lb. warhead behind, he says. The resistance, he adds, is learning how to modify other types of looted weapons, converting air-to-air missiles into surface-to-air missiles for targeting low-flying helicopters.

The aide says the resistance cells in his province have agreed that they will no longer conduct attacks in their hometowns. A cell from Fallujah, say, will travel to Baghdad to launch an assault and vice versa. The idea is to make it harder for U.S. Army intelligence units to detect and bust cells. The Saddam aide says the attack in Nasiriyah was planned and executed by a cell from a town between Fallujah and Ramadi. He adds that a member of the cell told him that the coalition troops in the south, where Nasiriyah lies, were much more accessible, with fewer fortifications, than those in the Sunni triangle near Baghdad, making them an easier target. To further increase their chances of eluding capture and to protect their families, the members of a cell based west of Fallujah, says the aide, never sleep at home. Instead they stay with relatives who live in other towns in the area. And they never keep their weapons in these or their own houses, but hide them in farmers' fields and orchards.

Abizaid noted that some people might think 5,000 insurgents are a "very small" force. But he added, "When you understand that they're organized in cellular structure, that they have a brutal and determined cadre, that they know how to operate covertly, that they have access to a lot of money and a lot of ammunition, you'll understand how dangerous they are." The U.S. military may have underestimated this foe once. It's unlikely to do so again.

—Reported by Simon Robinson and Vivienne Walt/Baghdad and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington