BAGHDAD, Iraq – "As we fight this low-intensity conflict," the American general said, "there will be ... more tragedies in the future." Hours later, in the flash of a guerrilla missile, tragedy struck again and the intensity of this American conflict moved up a notch.
The big, lumbering Chinook helicopter (search) that crashed in flames Sunday in the Euphrates River (search) farm country west of here took with it not just the lives of 15 U.S. soldiers, but also any hopes anyone may have harbored that the war in Iraq would end anytime soon.
After six months, the anti-U.S. resistance is smarter, more active, more effective. The American command says it sees growing signs of coordinated planning. Signs of its growing boldness are unmistakable.
In little more than a week, in an arc stretching through the guerrilla belt from north of Baghdad (search) to the west, the insurgents have stunned the U.S. occupation army with one blow after another.
On Oct. 25, they brought down a helicopter for the first time in four months, a Black Hawk of the 4th Infantry Division felled by ground fire at Tikrit, hometown of the fugitive ex-president Saddam Hussein. At sunrise the next day, they battered the occupation's headquarters hotel in Baghdad with a volley of rockets -- fired practically from its doorstep -- forcing out hundreds of U.S. staff members.
Two days later, last Tuesday, an Abrams tank, 68-ton symbol of U.S. Army might, was destroyed for the first time during the six-month-old occupation, blown off the road by an insurgent land mine or makeshift bomb north of Baghdad.
Then, on Sunday, a guerrilla gunner -- apparently armed with a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile and positioned in a date-palm grove -- shot the Chinook out the skies, the biggest U.S. military target yet.
The intensity is seen not just in the targets, but in the numbers.
The average number of attacks, around 12 a day in midsummer, reached 33 a day by late October. In seven weeks of war in March and April, 114 Americans were killed in combat. But even more -- some 140 U.S. military personnel -- have been killed in action since President Bush declared "major combat" ended on May 1.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has begun talking of a "long, hard slog" ahead. The rhetoric among the American leadership in Baghdad is hardening, too, as they try to steel the resolve of their Iraqi and coalition allies, of the American public, of the American soldier.
"They believe they can drain the coalition of its will by inflicting a steady stream of casualties. They are wrong," the U.S. occupation chief, L. Paul Bremer, declared at a Baghdad news conference Saturday evening.
At the same session, the overall U.S. commander here, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, marshaled such words as "difficulty," "sacrifice" and "perseverance" as he spoke of the road ahead.
"Undoubtedly, as we continue to fight this low-intensity conflict, there will be more obstacles, more setbacks, and more tragedies in the future," Sanchez said Saturday.
The very next day was deadlier for U.S. forces than any but one since the fighting in Iraq began.
As they move ahead, Sanchez's aides say, their most urgent need is for intelligence, better, quicker information from cooperative Iraqis about who is organizing the attacks, and where and when. Right now, Sanchez acknowledged, "I can't give you an answer."
Increasingly, as well, the Baghdad command is pushing to shift the security burden onto Iraqis themselves -- police, paramilitary civil defense, urban security guards. Bremer said Saturday he would accelerate their training and deployment.
But cooperative Iraqi informants may prove difficult to enlist in the zone of resistance around Baghdad, where resentment of the U.S. occupation runs deep. And Iraqi security forces -- hastily trained, underpaid, themselves often resentful of the Americans -- may prove a thin shield for a large foreign army far from home, an army whose troops travel in vulnerable convoys and low-flying Chinooks.
Thus far the attacks on his formidable, 130,000-member army have been "strategically insignificant," Gen. Sanchez said. But their political significance, inevitably, will grow.
Back in Washington, the Pentagon has banned photographs of the arriving coffins of U.S. dead. In Iraq, at the site of the helicopter shootdown, American troops tried to confiscate news photographers' digital camera disks. No matter: The picture from Iraq, day by day, will grow sharp and clear.
"We have to be realistic," Bremer said after learning of Sunday's heavy toll. "We're in a war here."