BAGHDAD - Saddam Hussein's capture three weeks ago hasn't slowed the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, which now seems more entrenched than ever, according to a review of recent attacks and interviews with U.S. and Iraqi officials.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they now doubt that Saddam had a significant role in directing guerrilla attacks. They say that while his interrogation has led to some arrests, basic information is still lacking about the guerrilla cells that are attacking U.S. and allied troops with sophistication and brutality.
"We don't think, as some have speculated, that he was the central figure managing the entire anti-coalition operation," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. Still, officials believe the former leader played some role. "Do we fully understand where Saddam fits in? We're putting that puzzle together."
U.S intelligence officials in Washington said Saddam has begun cooperating with U.S. interrogators, but they said he claims he wasn't involved in directing the resistance and denies he had links to al-Qaida or other international terrorist groups who now appear to be joining the guerrillas.
The pace of attacks on U.S troops weeks after Saddam's capture has shaken U.S. officials' confidence that they know whom the insurgents are and has made targeting the insurgents difficult at best. Some people working with U.S. forces say many detained in the crackdown against anti-U.S. forces know little about the organization or seem to be uninvolved in the insurgency.
Even something as basic as the number of anti-U.S. fighters in Iraq is a mystery. "We've seen varied assessments that range from 500 to 5,000 or even higher," Kimmitt said. "I don't think we really have a good fix on that number."
As for how the various cells might relate to one another, officials admit they are working on hunches as much as anything.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who commands the Army's 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, said he's convinced that there's a central planning, training and supply network behind the homemade roadside bombs that explode nearly daily around the country.
However, "I can't tell you that I have absolute confidence that I am correct," Dempsey said. "They just seem to have a quality about them." Other officials say attacks around the country in the past week have differed so much in technique - from suicide bombings to mortar assaults - that it seems unlikely they're the work of a single organization.
The pace of killing and maiming of American troops hasn't slowed since Saddam's Dec. 13 arrest.
In the 14 days prior to Saddam's capture, 11 American soldiers were killed. In the 14 days that followed, that figure was 14, not including four Bulgarian and two Thai soldiers who also died.
On Christmas Day in Baghdad, there were 18 attacks, including nine nearly simultaneous ones by rocket-propelled grenades, that slammed into embassies, the so-called "Green Zone" that serves as the coalition's headquarters, and an Iraqi apartment complex, setting off a barrage of explosions that terrified much of the city.
Three days later, in the southern town of Karbala, four suicide bombers killed 18 people, including six coalition soldiers, and wounded more than 150. On New Year's Eve, again in Baghdad, a car bomb tore through a popular upscale restaurant, killing at least five and wounding dozens.
Unlike attacks in places such as Israel, there are no subsequent claims of responsibility. As a result, Iraqis and U.S. military officials are left to wonder whether the bloodshed is the result of a single large organization, disparate cells or lone fighters.
American civilian officials cast the ongoing attacks as an attempt to sabotage the handover of authority to a new Iraqi government in July, but several members of Iraq's Governing Council said last week that the guerrilla war has turned into a terrorist free-for-all fueled by U.S. failure to seal the country's borders.
"It's a terrorist war now," said council member Songul Chapouk, who represents Iraqi Turkmen and the city of Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad. "Many people in my city were (Saddam Hussein loyalist fighters), but I see them and they are working now, not out conducting attacks."
The struggle to understand the attacks becomes clear on the ground. The town of Ramadi, for example, is a hotspot west of Baghdad.
Home to many Saddam loyalists, it has become a poster child of the troubled Sunni Triangle, a mass of land populated by Sunni Muslims, who share the same religious practices as Saddam and, in many cases, were privileged under his rule. When Saddam was captured, hundreds took to the city's streets in protest.
American troops are broadly unpopular there. "No one in Ramadi likes them," said Ahmed Faiq, a soft-spoken pharmacist. "They don't understand the situation here."
Wassam Khali, a furniture maker, agreed. "It's better for everyone if the Americans leave Iraq," he said. "If they stay, maybe there will be a revolt against them."
Saddam's capture has had only "minor impact" in Ramadi, said Lt. Col. Thomas Hollis, who commands a battalion of soldiers in Ramadi.
Hollis, of the 1st Infantry Division, was standing in front of a map full of color-coordinated pushpins. Ramadi was marked with one big cluster of red pins for homemade bomb attacks, yellow for vehicle ambushes and blue for weapons cache finds.
Hollis' troops, who arrived in Iraq four months ago, have made adjustments for the Ramadi challenge. For instance, Bravo Company, which normally has 14 armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles and no Humvees, now rides in five Bradleys and 12 Humvees, giving it greater agility. Officers such as 1st Lt. Jeff Flach, who usually specializes in coordinating air defense for the mechanized units, have been shifted to civil affairs operations that reach out to locals.
"We're asking guys trained in artillery to do diplomacy, state department stuff," Flach said.
The insurgents have made adjustments, too, however.
After a series of traffic checkpoints nabbed vehicles carrying weapons, the rebels started moving weapons by boat on the Euphrates River, coming ashore at night to bury caches of rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortar rounds. U.S. soldiers have started patrols along the river, looking for freshly dug ground.
In a more serious example, rebels in Ramadi have forsaken once-common mortar attacks, which usually hit dirt and concrete and caused few casualties, in favor of deadlier car bombings. In the last three weeks, a suicide car bomber at a military base in Ramadi killed one soldier and injured 14, while another in the nearby town of Khaldiya killed 17 Iraqi police officers and wounded dozens.
The fighters are also becoming increasingly compartmentalized, Hollis said.
Early in the postwar conflict, insurgents would be caught with artillery rounds rigged into homemade bombs that they planned to hide under rocks. Now, Hollis said, when they catch someone who set off a bomb, he usually knows only the person who planted it. And the person who placed it knows only the deliveryman, who in turn, can name no one higher than the middleman for the bomb maker. And the bomb maker came into contact with the guy with the raw materials, not the person who bought them.
Often, U.S. soldiers detain people who have no connection to the insurgency. "Every day I have the same problem," said Alan Zeid, a contract interpreter for the 1st Infantry in Ramadi. "It's 90, 95 percent of the time, they're bringing in the wrong guy. But it's what they have to do."
Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Knight Ridder correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report.
The following information may be used by those papers wishing to chart U.S. casualties for the 14 days prior to and 14 days after Saddam's capture:
Nov. 29 - 2 dead, 1 wounded
Nov. 30 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 1 - 1 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 2 - 1 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 3 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 4 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 5 - 1 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 6 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 7 - 1 dead, 2 wounded
Dec. 8 - 1 dead
Dec. 9 - 31 wounded (car bombing in Mosul)
Dec. 10 - 2 dead, 4 wounded
Dec. 11 - 1 dead, 14 wounded (car bombing in Ramadi)
Dec. 12 - 1 dead, 3 wounded
Dec. 13 - Saddam captured, 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 14 - 1 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 15 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 16 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 17 - 1 dead, 1 wounded
Dec. 18 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 19 - 1 dead, 2 wounded
Dec. 20 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 21 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 22 - 2 dead, 2 wounded
Dec. 23 - 0 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 24 - 4 dead, 0 wounded
Dec. 25 - 2 dead, 4 wounded
Dec. 26 - 2 dead, 1 wounded
Dec. 27 - 0 dead, 0 wounded (6 non-U.S. coalition dead, 26 wounded in Karbala car bombings)
Source: U.S. Central Command.
Copyright 2004 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services