BAGHDAD, Iraq – Contrary to U.S. government claims, the insurgency in Iraq (search) is led by well-armed Sunnis (search) angry about losing power, not foreign fighters, and is far larger than previously thought, American military officials say.
The officials told The Associated Press the guerrillas can call on loyalists to boost their forces to as high as 20,000 and have enough popular support among nationalist Iraqis angered by the presence of U.S. troops that they cannot be militarily defeated.
That number is far larger than the 5,000 guerrillas previously thought to be at the insurgency's core. And some insurgents are highly specialized — one Baghdad cell, for instance, has two leaders, one assassin, and two groups of bomb-makers.
Although U.S. military analysts disagree over the exact size, the insurgency is believed to include dozens of regional cells, often led by tribal sheiks and inspired by Sunni Muslim imams.
The developing intelligence picture of the insurgency contrasts with the commonly stated view in the Bush administration that the fighting is fueled by foreign warriors intent on creating an Islamic state.
"We're not at the forefront of a jihadist war here," said a U.S. military official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The military official, who has logged thousands of miles driving around Iraq to meet with insurgents or their representatives, said a skillful Iraqi government could co-opt some of the guerrillas and reconcile with the leaders instead of fighting them.
"I generally like a lot of these guys," he said. "We know who the key people are in all the different cities, and generally how they operate. The problem is getting actionable information so you can either attack them, arrest them or engage them."
Even as Iraqi leaders wrangle over the contentious issue of offering a broad amnesty to guerrilla fighters, the new Iraqi military and intelligence corps have begun gathering and sharing information on the insurgents with the U.S. military, providing a sharper picture of a complex insurgency.
"Nobody knows about Iraqis and all the subtleties in culture, appearance, religion and so forth better than Iraqis themselves," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Baggio, a military spokesman at Multinational Corps headquarters in Baghdad. "We're very optimistic about the Iraqis' use of their own human intelligence to help root out these insurgents."
The intelligence boost has allowed American pilots to bomb suspected insurgent safe houses over the past two weeks, with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi saying Iraqis supplied information for at least one of those airstrikes. But the better view of the insurgency also contradicts much of the popular wisdom about it.
Estimates of the insurgents' manpower tend to be too low. Last week, a former coalition official said 4,000 to 5,000 Baathists form the core of the insurgency, with other attacks committed by a couple hundred supporters of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) and hundreds of other foreign fighters.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the figure of 5,000 insurgents "was never more than a wag and is now clearly ridiculous."
"Part-timers are difficult to count, but almost all insurgent movements depend on cadres that are part-time and that can blend back into the population," he said.
U.S. military analysts disagree over the size of the insurgency, with estimates running as high as 20,000 fighters when part-timers are added.
Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said the higher numbers squared with his findings in a study of the insurgency completed in Iraq.
One hint that the number is larger is the sheer volume of suspected insurgents — 22,000 — who have cycled through U.S.-run prisons. Most have been released. And in April alone, U.S. forces killed as many as 4,000 people, the military official said, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen fighting under the banner of a radical cleric.
There has been no letup in attacks. On Thursday, insurgents detonated a car bomb and then attacked a military headquarters in Samarra, a center of resistance in the Sunni Triangle 60 miles north of the capital, killing five U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi guardsman.
Guerrilla leaders come from various corners of Saddam's Baath Party, including lawyers' groups, prominent families and especially from his Military Bureau, an internal security arm used to purge enemies. They've formed dozens of cells.
U.S. military documents obtained by AP show a guerrilla band mounting attacks in Baghdad that consists of two leaders, four sub-leaders and 30 members, broken down by activity. There is a pair of financiers, two cells of car bomb-builders, an assassin, separate teams launching mortar and rocket attacks, and others handling roadside bombs and ambushes.
Most of the insurgents are fighting for a bigger role in a secular society, not a Taliban-like Islamic state, the military official said. Almost all the guerrillas are Iraqis, even those launching some of the devastating car bombings normally blamed on foreigners — usually al-Zarqawi.
The official said many car bombings bore the "tradecraft" of Saddam's former secret police and were aimed at intimidating Iraq's new security services.
Many in the U.S. intelligence community have been making similar points, but have encountered political opposition from the Bush administration, a State Department official in Washington said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Civilian analysts generally agreed, saying U.S. and Iraqi officials have long overemphasized the roles of foreign fighters and Muslim extremists.
Such positions support the Bush administration's view that the insurgency is linked to the war on terror. A closer examination paints most insurgents as secular Iraqis angry at the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops.
"Too much U.S. analysis is fixated on terms like 'jihadist,' just as it almost mindlessly tries to tie everything to (Osama) bin Laden," Cordesman said. "Every public opinion poll in Iraq ... supports the nationalist character of what is happening."
Many guerrillas are motivated by Islam in the same way religion motivates American soldiers, who also tend to pray more when they're at war, the U.S. military official said.
He said he met Tuesday with four tribal sheiks from Ramadi who "made very clear" that they had no desire for an Islamic state, even though mosques are used as insurgent sanctuaries and funding centers.
"'We're not a bunch of Talibans,'" he paraphrased the sheiks as saying.
At the orders of Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander of Mideast operations, Army analysts looked closely for evidence that Iraq's insurgency was adopting extreme Islamist goals, the official said. Analysts learned that ridding Iraq of U.S. troops was the motivator for most insurgents, not the formation of an Islamic state.
The officer said Iraq's insurgents have a big advantage over guerrillas elsewhere: plenty of arms, money, and training. Iraq's lack of a national identity card system — and guerrillas' refusal to plan attacks by easily intercepted telephone calls — makes them difficult to track.
"They have learned a great deal over the last year, and with far more continuity than the rotating U.S. forces and Iraqi security forces," Cordesman said of the guerrillas. "They have learned to react very quickly and in ways our sensors and standard tactics cannot easily deal with."