New York Times
November 18, 2004
WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 - Senior Marine intelligence officers in Iraq are warning that if American troop levels in the Falluja area are significantly reduced during reconstruction there, as has been planned, insurgents in the region will rebound from their defeat. The rebels could thwart the retraining of Iraqi security forces, intimidate the local population and derail elections set for January, the officers say.
They have further advised that despite taking heavy casualties in the weeklong battle, the insurgents will continue to grow in number, wage guerrilla attacks and try to foment unrest among Falluja's returning residents, emphasizing that expectations for improved conditions have not been met.
The pessimistic analysis is contained in a seven-page classified report prepared by intelligence officers in the First Marine Expeditionary Force, or I MEF, last weekend as the offensive in Falluja was winding down. The assessment was distributed to senior Marine and Army officers in Iraq, where one officer called it "brutally honest."
Marine commanders marshaled about 12,000 marines and soldiers, and roughly 2,500 Iraqi forces for the Falluja campaign, but they always expected to send thousands of American troops back to other locations in Iraq eventually, after the major fighting in Falluja. This intelligence assessment suggests that such a move would be risky.
Some senior military officers in Iraq and Washington who have read the report have cautioned that the assessment is a subjective judgment by some Marine intelligence officers near the front lines and does not reflect the views of all intelligence officials and senior commanders in Iraq.
"The assessment of the enemy is a worst-case assessment," Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III of the Army, the senior military intelligence officer in Iraq, said of the Marine report in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "We have no intention of creating a vacuum and walking away from Falluja."
The report offers a stark counterpoint to more upbeat assessments voiced by military commanders in the wake of the Falluja operation, which they say completed its goals well ahead of schedule and with fewer American and Iraqi civilian casualties than expected.
Although the resistance crumbled in the face of the offensive, the report warns that if American forces do not remain in sufficient numbers for some time, "The enemy will be able to effectively defeat I MEF's ability to accomplish its primary objectives of developing an effective Iraqi security force and setting the conditions for successful Iraqi elections.
The American military and Iraqi government are poised to pour humanitarian aid and conduct reconstruction efforts in the battle-scarred city, most of whose nearly 300,000 residents fled before the fighting began last week.
"The view from the tactical level has been generally more pessimistic," said one senior Marine officer in Washington, referring to the view from the ground. "They may well be right, but I would also say that tactical intel is almost always more dour than that done at the strategic level."
Details of the report and some of its verbatim findings were provided to The New York Times this week by four active-duty or retired military officers in Iraq and Washington who have read the report or heard descriptions of it.
The assessment draws on intelligence gathered in the Falluja operation and 10 intelligence reports compiled in the last six months in the Marines' area of responsibility in Iraq, principally Al Anbar and Babil Provinces, officials said.
Senior officers said the intelligence report was meant to help top Marine commanders in Iraq, including Lieut. Gen. John F. Sattler and Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, and their military superiors in Baghdad, decide how many American forces to keep in the Falluja-Ramadi area when the offensive is over and reconstruction efforts are in full swing.
Senior officers have said that they would keep a sizable American military presence in and around Falluja in the long reconstruction phase that has just begun, until sufficiently trained and equipped Iraqi forces could take the lead in providing security.
"It will take a security presence for a while until a well-trained Iraqi security force can take over the presence in Falluja and maintain security so that the insurgents don't come back, as they have tried to do in every one of the cities that we have thrown them out of," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, said on Nov. 8.
American commanders have expressed disappointment in some of the Iraqis they have been training, especially members of the Iraqi police force. Other troops have performed well, the officers have said.
The commanders are looking at a range of options on how many troops to keep in the area, depending on the security situation and how quickly Iraqi forces can take control. But if many American troops and the better-trained specialized Iraqi forces, like the commando and special police units, are committed to Falluja for a long time, they will not be available to go elsewhere in Iraq, possibly creating critical shortfalls.
Already, hundreds of American troops in a battalion of an Army Stryker Brigade in the Falluja area have been returned to Mosul in the north to help quell insurgent attacks there.
The Marine report paints a generally gloomy picture of the insurgents' expected reaction if American forces are reduced too much during the critical reconstruction.
"At current projected force levels, the enemy will be able to maintain a sufficient level of intimidation of the Al Anbar and Babil Province populations and infiltrate or otherwise further degrade the capabilities" of the Iraqi security forces in western and south-central Iraq, where the Marines operate, the report says.
The insurgency has shown "outstanding resilience" and the militants' willingness to fight is bolstered by four main factors, the report says. One, the tribal and insurgent leaders understand the limitations of the United Nations, American elections and internal Iraqi government politics, and try to exploit them. Two, they are skilled at turning battlefield defeats into symbolic victories, just as Saddam Hussein did after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Insurgents will make the battle of Falluja into an excellent recruiting tool, the report says.
Three, the insurgents are dedicated propagandists who use the Internet and other means to feed exaggerated and contrived reporting from the battlefield to jihadists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. Al Jazeera and Arab media then pick it up, the report says.
Finally, the report says, the insurgents believe they are more willing to suffer casualties than the American military and public, and "will continue to find refuge among sympathetic tribes and former regime members."
The report predicts that insurgents will try to disrupt voter registration, which the officers say is already two weeks behind in Al Anbar Province, and that elections in the region will be cast into doubt.
Officers who have read the report played down its dire warnings and pointed out several successes noted in the document. The report, for instance, says that the Falluja operation achieved its basic goal, to deny the insurgents their largest sanctuary in Iraq, and has forced the network of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to move to a new base of operations in the country, probably Mosul.
The report also says that the number of attacks in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar Province, has declined by 40 percent in the last few weeks, after security was heightened in the region, according to Maj. Douglas M. Powell, a Marine spokesman in Washington.
Eric Schmitt reported from Washington for this article, and Robert F. Worth from Falluja.