November 12, 2003

General Vows to Intensify U.S. Response to Attackers


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 11 — Stung by the deaths of nearly 40 American soldiers over the past 10 days, the top American military commander in Iraq spoke of a "turning point" in the conflict on Tuesday and outlined a new get-tough approach to combat operations in areas north and west of Baghdad, strongholds for loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said operations would be stepped up against shadowy groups behind the increasing tempo of attacks on American troops in the Iraqi heartland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Those groups have been mounting ambushes, triggering roadside bombs and shooting down American helicopters. He confirmed that the Black Hawk that crashed Friday, killing six soldiers, had been shot down; a missile strike on a Chinook on Nov. 2 left 16 dead.

"We are taking the fight into the safe havens of the enemy in the heartland of the country where we continue to face former regime loyalists, criminals and foreign terrorists, who are trying to isolate the coalition forces from the Iraqi people and break the will of the international community," General Sanchez told a heavily guarded news conference in the Iraqi capital. He added, "They will fail."

Hours after he spoke, the attackers struck anew with two mortars that were fired at midevening into the so-called green zone, the fortified area of central Baghdad where General Sanchez and top American civilian officials have their headquarters. A third mortar shell struck in an unfortified area to the south of the headquarters in what was Mr. Hussein's Republican Palace, but an American military spokesman said that the volley that struck in the palace complex had caused no damage, and that there were no reports of casualties.

Dispensing with euphemisms favored by many Bush administration officials in recent months, General Sanchez, commander of the 130,000 American troops in Iraq, described what they were facing as a war.

He was blunt in assessing the challenge posed by armed opponents who faded away as American troops overran the country in April, only to regroup, mainly in the area known as the "Sunni triangle," between Baghdad, Tikrit and Ramadi. From those Sunni Muslim areas, the major beneficiaries of Mr. Hussein's rule, attackers have mounted an increasingly sophisticated campaign that the general said accounted for more than 90 percent of strikes on allied forces.

Citing a deadly Oct. 26 rocket attack on the Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad, timed to coincide with the visit to the hotel of the deputy defense secretary, Paul D. Wolfowitz, the general said the attack was intended to "weaken the will of the coalition forces" and cause the United States to "walk away" from Iraq.

"It's not going to happen," he said. "We are not walking away, we are not faltering, we are going to win this battle, and this war."

Aides to General Sanchez said the choice of the word "war" was part of a conscious effort by senior military officers to inject realism into debates in Washington. American officials disclosed Tuesday that the chief American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, had left abruptly for talks in Washington.

General Sanchez confirmed another setback for American forces: that the American-appointed mayor of Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb of about two million Shiite Muslims, had been killed Sunday. The general said the mayor, Muhanad al-Kaadi, had tried to drive into an area forbidden to vehicles, then had engaged in a "wrestling match" with an American soldier during which the soldier's gun had gone off, inflicting fatal leg wounds on the mayor.

"It was a very unfortunate incident," the general said, adding that it was under investigation.

On another issue with American political overtones, General Sanchez said interrogations of 20 people suspected of links to Al Qaeda had failed to confirm such links.

Perhaps unwilling to fuel criticism of the Bush administration for overstating links between Mr. Hussein's Iraq and Islamic terrorists, General Sanchez said that while there was no proof, "we believe there is in fact a linkage, if nothing more than ideology and some training and possibly some financial linkages." He said American estimates of the number of foreign-born fighters were "about 200," who "come and go" in and out of Iraq, and that the attackers included "some fundamentalists."

Several times, he returned to what has become a central tenet of American commanders here: that their problems are not a result of inadequate force levels but of sketchy intelligence that leaves them unsure whom they are fighting, the extent to which the attacks are coordinated at a national level, and, if so, by whom.

The general described a stark picture of the attacks on American troops, saying they averaged six a day when he took command five months ago, rose to "the teens" 60 days ago, and had increased to 30 to 35 a day in the last 30 days. He predicted that the attacks would increase still further before the intensifying American military campaign began to curb them, an outcome he said was not in doubt.

"The enemy has increasingly embraced terrorist acts designed to intimidate the Iraqi people, and just as importantly to create a picture of chaos," he said. But, he added: "The stark reality is that they cannot defeat us, and they know it. I am supremely confident of this reality."

At another point, he responded brusquely to a reporter's question that cited concerns among some in Europe and the United States that Iraq was turning into a new Vietnam.

"It's not Vietnam, and there's no way you can make the comparison to the quagmire of Vietnam, when you look at the progress that's being made, when you look at the lack of popular support for the previous regime," the general said. "There's no alternative political structure that the people of Iraq are going to embrace that is connected to this anticoalition element. I think it's just amazing that anybody would think that it's an alternative to go back to that oppressive, brutal regime."

General Sanchez, a 52-year-old Texan, joined the Army from college, American officers at the news conference noted, after his family persuaded him to defer plans to follow his older brother into the Army in Vietnam.

In his remarks on Tuesday, he struck a harsh tone, saying that American forces' determination to "win the hearts and minds" of the 25 million Iraqis with reconstruction programs remained firm, but that so did the determination to meet attacks with full force.

"Although the coalition can be benevolent, this is the same lethal instrument that removed the previous regime, and we will not hesitate to employ the appropriate levels of combat power," he said in prepared remarks. In response to questions, he added, "What we are embarking on here is the absolute necessity to defeat the enemy," in pursuit of which the "application of all combat power that is available to us" would be used.

He defended, in particular, the American forces' decision to call in combat aircraft to bomb targets close to the areas where the Chinook and the Black Hawk were shot down, near Falluja and near Tikrit.

The bombings, apparently aimed at targets close to villages near the crashes, were the first that American forces had acknowledged since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1. American officers have declined to say whether the bombings killed Iraqis thought to be responsible for the helicopter attacks.

General Sanchez said investigators had determined that the Black Hawk was shot down with what he described as a rocket-propelled grenade in a rural area south of Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown and the focus of some of the most intensive American military operations since the fall of Baghdad.

General Sanchez acknowledged that the failure to capture or kill Mr. Hussein was a major problem, providing a rallying point for "former regime loyalists."

"Do I believe it is critical?" he said, referring to the hunt for Mr. Hussein. "I do believe that." Capturing or killing the fugitive Iraqi leader, he said, would "relieve the people of Iraq of the fear of his return."

"How close have I gotten to Saddam Hussein?" he said. "Not close enough. I don't know how close I've got to him, but by God I've got to get closer."