Ex-Occupation Aide Sees No Dent in 'Saddamists'

By DAVID E. SANGER

The New York Times

July 2, 2004

WASHINGTON, July 1 - More than a year of intensive efforts by the American military and the Central Intelligence Agency to destroy the insurgency in Iraq has failed to reduce the number of ``hard-core Saddamists'' seeking to destroy the interim Iraqi government, a former senior official of the just-dissolved American-led occupation authority said in an interview on Thursday.

The senior official, speaking with a small group of reporters near the White House, said he was repeatedly ``disappointed we haven't had better insight into the command and control of the insurgents.''

The official was touching on one of the continuing mysteries of the insurgency: how has a relatively small rebel force organized, and how can it be broken? In recent days, other officials have offered varying assessments on this question. Last Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, speaking at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: ``Someone's giving general orders, and other people are following them. I think that's clear.''

But Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a few minutes later that ``whether it's a central nervous system or some other form of coordination'' was an open question and that ``the intelligence community, as far as I know, will not tell you, will not give you an answer, because they can't give me an answer.''

On Thursday, the former senior occupation official estimated that the number of insurgents had stayed constant at 4,000 to 5,000, suggesting that as soon as they are killed or captured, they have been replaced.

``I have seen no evidence that the number has changed,'' he said, adding that ``the intelligence on this stuff is not as good as it should be.''

Moreover, said the former senior official, who has spent more than a year in Iraq and had access to the highest-level intelligence, American officials had found it ``almost impossible to penetrate'' the network organized by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is believed responsible for many of the suicide bombings that have killed both American troops and Iraqis.

The official also said that over the last year, both Iran and Syria had stepped up their activity in Iraq, and that the Iranians might have been financing Moktada al-Sadr, the young radical cleric whom the Bush administration first promised to capture or kill, then decided had to be spared to avoid urban warfare in Najaf, his stronghold. The Iranians have ``become more active over time, and not helpful,'' the official said, though he said intelligence indicated that far more foreign fighters were coming over the border from Syria than from Iran.

Taken together, the description of the paucity of intelligence still available to the 138,000 American troops in Iraq and the assessment of how few inroads have been made at reducing the insurgency sounded a very different note from the optimistic-sounding messages that President Bush has been sending all week about the prospects of the new Iraqi government.

In fact, when officials speak on the record - from Baghdad to Washington to New Orleans - they describe an Iraq that is making significant political and economic progress, despite the insurgency.

A specific cause for optimism involved economic policy, in the view of former American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, who left Baghdad on Monday. He said in Washington that he was convinced that the just-disbanded occupation authority had ``accomplished quite a lot,'' and had succeeded in ``introducing the concept of a devolution of power and the balance of power'' for a new Iraqi government.

``We have tried to find ways to make sure that not all decisions are made in Baghdad, as they have been for the past thousand years,'' he said.

On Thursday in Washington, Mr. Bremer ticked off a series of economic reforms that he enacted before leaving Baghdad: balanced budgets - a contrast, he acknowledged with a grin, to the deficits run by the United States - a new currency and openness to foreign investment.

Yet the insurgency, Mr. Bremer said, ``will be very hard to root out,'' and ``stopping corruption is going to take time.'' But he concluded: ``Can they get security enough under control to hold that credible elections will be held in January? I believe they can.''

While Mr. Bremer spoke in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney, in a political speech at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, argued that the Clinton administration, which he never actually named, allowed a series of crises to brew, all of which, he argued, the Bush administration had to tackle after Inauguration Day in 2001.

``When we took office,'' Mr. Cheney said, Pakistan was in danger of falling to Islamic extremists, ``terrorists were also receiving support in Saudi Arabia,'' and Libya, North Korea and Iran were acquiring arms from A.Q. Khan, the former head of Pakistan's main nuclear laboratory.

``All of these dangers were gathering,'' he said. ``In short, this was the situation when President Bush and I came to office: a world where terrorists were emboldened by years of being able to strike us with impunity.''

The former senior occupation official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity at the request of the White House, described a situation in which efforts to cut off the influx of foreign terrorists entering Iraq had been only partly successful.

He said that the Syrian border ``was the most important one where foreigners were coming in, and terrorists,'' but that the number could not be reliably quantified. The captured fighters were ``mostly Syrian - there were Sudanese, Yemenis, some Saudis and then the odd Egyptian and Moroccan.'' Many of the foreign fighters had contacts both with former Hussein forces, he said, and with Mr. Zarqawi's network, but it was unclear who was coordinating their entry, if anyone.

He appeared less concerned about the appeal of the Zarqawi fighters, who he said were reviled in much of Iraq. The Hussein insurgents are a more significant threat, he said, in part because they are supported by an outer ring of ``less hard-core'' supporters, including teenagers and others paid to shoot rocket-propelled grenades at passing American troops.

Mark Glassman contributed reporting from New Orleans for this article.