In Khaldiyah, it's a war of nerves. A three-meter-deep crater marks the explosion point of a careering car bomb that the local police knew was inevitable. Just across and down a highway that cuts through this small town west of Baghdad is the home of a man the US suspects could help bring an end to these relentless attacks - tribal sheik Fanar Al-Kharbit.
The bomb exploded only hours before the first news flash on the most dramatic turn in the Iraq conflict since the fall of Baghdad - the capture last Saturday evening of Saddam Hussein.
Throughout the night each side operated in secrecy, the Americans subjecting Saddam to a humiliating videotaped medical examination that would be released to the world, the insurgents rigging the car with enough explosive to kill 23 Iraqis in a strike on the Khaldiyah police station that also would flash worldwide - until it was blitzed from the media by the news of Saddam's arrest.
As black smoke cleared over Khaldiyah and its dusty main street was swept of body parts, shattered glass and clothing now reduced to singed rags, locals went through the grim ritual of tallying the dead - more than a dozen policemen, at least one student from a nearby school, a fruit vendor, a few other street-stall holders and a man who worked in a nearby sewage control office.
A soldier of the US Army's 4th Infantry Division (Task Force Ironhorse) watches an Iraqi family outside a house being searched during a night raid in the town of Baquba in central Iraq, December 18, 2003. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
The police station, shielded only by a lightweight cinder block wall, was targeted because the insurgents accuse the Iraqi police of collaborating with the US occupation forces. Initially, at least, it had the desired effect - police anger was directed not at the bomber, but at the Americans.
Surviving policemen complained that the US had not sufficiently protected their station, that they had been threatened with the sack for their reluctance to join US raiding parties and that locals constantly abused them as American lackeys. Acutely aware that he is 120 times more likely to die than his counterpart on the beat in New York, police officer Khalid Hammed said: "The best thing the US can do for us is pull out."
The two-story building is a police station in name only, pushed into action ahead of its time because of a US determination to be seen to be putting Iraqi security forces in place. More than 100 men are stationed at Khaldiyah, but only half have uniforms and fewer have weapons; they share two patrol cars with four other stations in the area and they have one telephone.
Like other guerilla conflicts, Iraq has become a war of attrition.
Super self-protection by the Americans makes them a difficult target. So the insurgents turn more on Iraqis who are seen to be helping the US - police and security workers, the judiciary and local political leaders.
The Americans crack down even harder, now openly adopting tactics used by the Israelis on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and resurrecting some of the dubious strategies from Vietnam days, seemingly with little regard for how this will play out in the wider battle for hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The number of attacks against the US is down, but this doesn't mean that the security situation is any less fraught. While the American forces are poised defensively, like a coiled spring, and while fear grips that proportion of the Iraqi people that doesn't necessarily support the resistance, it is impossible for the US to pull Iraq out of the social and economic chaos that makes many Iraqis hunger for what they remember as the day-to-day orderliness of Saddam's Iraq.
And the longer this continues, the greater is the risk for Washington that more ordinary Iraqis will shift from fearing the insurgents to sympathizing or participating with them.
Hence the US interest in Fanar Al-Kharbit. There is little doubt that as a sheik in the Sunni hotbed between Ramadi and Faluja, Fanar Al-Kharbit knows more than he lets on. And there's the rub: the US has him pegged as a potential source of what it likes to call "actionable intelligence", but it doesn't have enough to pull him in.
American tanks have rumbled into his walled compound on the banks of the Euphrates River no fewer than seven times in the past few weeks, soldiers tumbling out to rummage through his home while, he says, telling him all the time to "shut up".
The sheik is still full of hard talk, but those who know him say he is a shadow of his former self. Reputed to be one of the richest men in Iraq, he used to strut in crisp traditional dress and hobnob with the most senior elements of the regime. Saddam was a frequent guest at his table until a falling out over business in the early '90s. Now he is ill-kempt and gaunt. When the Herald visited, he was more like a bewildered sheep herder, seemingly lost as he sat on his haunches against his front wall, facing the highway through Khaldiyah.
"In the first few months relations with the US were friendly, but now they are trying to provoke me," he said, pointing to the charred remains of reed beds by the Euphrates, which he said he had been ordered to burn so that his activities might be observed more closely from US observation posts.
"They are stupid, because they are listening to their spies who say bad things about me. I'm not a part of the resistance; but those who are are just protecting their country.
"This is not liberation, it is an occupation. People are very tired after Saddam's three wars. I'm worried if the Americans keep attacking me, that my tribe will react - but for now I have told my people not to cause trouble."
The difficulty for Fanar Al-Kharbit is that in running Saddam to ground, the Americans have displayed a new understanding of Iraqi tribalism and how it dovetails with the resistance.
Tracking more than 9000 people in tribal families loyal to Saddam, US intelligence officers worked on four family names, detaining more than 1200 of them. The information on Saddam's hole in the ground was extracted only hours before his arrest, from one of his most trusted tribal associates. The associate's name was on a list of 20 suspects compiled as intelligence officers tested a theory that the families which propped Saddam up in power were most likely to be protecting him.
Number five on the list was Qais Hattam, a businessman in Samara, near Saddam's home town of Tikrit. The US says that he dined with Saddam 48 hours before his capture and had contributed almost $US2 million ($2.7 million) to the fight. He in turn was captured along with more than 100 others and a huge cache of weapons and explosives when American forces launched a series of massive night-time raids on Samara this week.
The latest resistance attacks and US arrests - including nine who were described by the officer in charge of Saddam's detention, Major-General Ray Odierno, as "mid-level operatives: financiers, organizers, arms suppliers" - underscore the fluid structure and make-up of the opposition that confronts the US in Iraq.
US officials insist that the strategic direction comes from Izzat Ibrahim Al-Duri, a long-serving Saddam lieutenant whose family properties overlook the farm on which Saddam was dragged from his burrow and who this week became the most senior official of the former regime still on the run.
But hampered by poor communications, the evidence suggests great local autonomy and a degree of friction between several competing resistance groups with varying agendas, but all of which are bent on causing trouble for the US. There are Baath Party loyalists, some of whose ardor might be diluted by the finality of Saddam's capture. But there are also dozens of locally run cells that claim to be vehemently anti-Saddam and to be driven by nationalism and a need to protect their huge natural resources - especially oil - from what they see as an American grab.
Advising and training both these groups are an unknown number from the ranks of Saddam's well-trained military and from his tenacious intelligence agencies. In the service of some of them is a criminal element that operates on a fee-for-service basis.
Then there are the foreign fighters claimed by the US to be in the service of al-Qaeda and one of its offshoots, Ansar al-Islam. These so-called jihadists come from across the Arab world and are thought most likely to be the parties behind the wave of suicide bombings that started in the summer with the attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Responsibility is never claimed for the bombings. The US variously lays the blame at the feet of the foreign terror groups or the Baath Party loyalists. Co-ordination between the resistance groups is little understood, but it is thought to be erratic.
AS THE DUST settled in Samara on Wednesday, a local resident, Hikmat Azzawi, told a reporter: "They cut locks, they blow open doors, they search houses with no evidence. It's just like the Israelis and the Palestinians."
"They cut locks, they blow open doors, they search houses with no evidence. It's just like the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Iraqi women and children are terrified as they sit outside a house being searched by soldiers of U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division (Task Force Ironhorse) during night raid in the town of Baquba in central Iraq, December 18, 2003. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
This was not wild hyperbole on Azzawi's part. In the past few weeks US forces have openly admitted that they have actively sought Israeli advice on how they might impose security in Iraq.
Now, some Iraqi villages are being encircled with barbed wire. Only those Iraqis with US-issued identity cards may come and go; the relatives of suspected insurgents are being detained and, in some cases, their homes are being demolished. And the Americans are being urged to mirror the Israelis' extensive West Bank and Gaza informants' network, which has underpinned the Israeli campaign of summary execution for terror suspects - but which has failed to end the violence or advance the peace.
Before Saddam's detention, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US military commander in Iraq, said he was well pleased with the resort to tougher tactics following the death of 81 US soldiers in November.
He said: "We've considerably pushed back the numbers of engagements against coalition forces. We've been hitting back pretty hard - the attacks have dropped from 40 a day two weeks ago to under 20 a day."
After the Americans' widely criticized decision to disband, rather than attempt to harness the better elements of the Iraqi military and intelligence services, the US now is calling for help from veterans of Saddam's feared mukhabarat - the secret police.
Also, it is trying to enlist former Iraqi servicemen into the new Iraqi army. But it has suffered a major embarrassment with the revelation that more than one-third of the first Iraqi battalion in training had gone AWL - only days before it was to begin active service. The US now boasts that it has deployed or is training a greater number of Iraqi security forces than there are US forces in the country - almost 160,000.
But they have a way to go. Apart from the campaign of fear by bombing, the police are subjected to near-ritualistic humiliation in the total refusal of city motorists and others to acknowledge their authority; they are widely accused of threatening bogus charges against motorists who refuse to offer bribes and those who are posted at service stations to control angry petrol queues often sell pole position on the queue to the highest bidder.
Likewise, border control still appears to be a joke. When the Herald crossed into Iraq from Jordan at 3am on December 4, there were no US personnel to be seen at the border post. While I remained in a darkened vehicle, the driver took my passport into the immigration office. There was no attempt to match me with my documentation or to examine my two big equipment boxes.
THE CAPTURE of Saddam put an obvious spring in the step of the US leadership in Baghdad. But it also focused public attention on the clandestine Task Force 121, a mix of operatives from the US Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA and Special Forces who were involved in the arrest. Informed reports in the US say Task Force 121 is part of an escalation of a covert war in Iraq.
The strategy has rekindled unfavorable memories of Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, when Special Forces teams worked with Vietnamese agents to detain or kill those suspected of working or sympathizing with the Vietcong.
Up to 40,000 Vietnamese are estimated to have been eliminated over five years, many of them for spurious reasons. William E. Colby, who ran the program, subsequently told Congress: "A lot of things were done that should not have been done."
The Vietnam parallel in Iraq is the hatred between the majority Shiites and Kurds, and the minority Sunnis, who for decades mistreated the rest in the name of Saddam. There is a frightening risk that Task Force 121 will be sooled on to Sunnis, perhaps people such as Sheik Fanar Al-Kharbit, in settlement of personal grievances as much as for protection of national security.
The difficulty confronting George Bush is that, having taken control of Iraq, he sees toughing it out as the only option. Washington points to the relative peace of the north and the south as a substantial achievement. But while the center of Iraq - and especially Baghdad - remains a cauldron, it is virtually impossible to create conditions that might give Iraqis even the half-normal existence that would give them hope for the future.
Anger simmers at the prospect of a long wait for adequate supplies of electricity, petrol and cooking gas. If the US stays the course with its timetable for a fully elected new Iraqi government, it could be years before it can be demonstrated that Iraqis are in control of Iraq. Delays on both fronts create a perfect environment for guerilla war.
Whatever he is up to, and however dispirited Fanar Al-Kharbit appears, it seems that the sheik wants to keep punching. Returning to his place against the wall in the pale afternoon sun, he said: "I've told the Americans to get out of my neighborhood. They wouldn't be here if I was a leader of the mujahideen. And if they keep going like this, a lot more US soldiers will die."
Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald