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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 06:26 GMT 07:26 UK
US forces threatened in power vacuum

By Jim Muir
BBC Correspondent in Baghdad

"Iraq is still a combat zone - that's why we're still taking some casualties."

Motorists frisked in Baghdad
High security still in the Iraqi capital

The stark statement from the commander of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq, Lt-General David McKiernan, may have come as a surprise to those who were under the impression that the war in Iraq had ended some time ago.

President George W Bush announced on 1 May that "major hostilities" had halted.

Since then, 40 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq - 12 of them in a spate of attacks carried out in one two-week period.

The attacks stimulated a rash of major US operations, the biggest since the fall of the major Iraqi cities in April.

Thousands of American troops, backed by tanks and air power, deployed into a pocket of terrain around the town of Balad, on the Tigris about 75km north of Baghdad, in a huge four-day combing operation codenamed Peninsula Strike.

Training camp

About 400 Iraqi potential suspects were detained, though all but 60 were later freed.

People are impatient, they had hoped that things would improve quickly and they have not
Adnan Pachachi
Another major operation was launched to destroy a "terrorist training camp" 150km (90 miles) north-west of the capital, with reports that 70 people or more may have been killed in the attack.

Many smaller raids were carried out elsewhere, with the obvious intention of seizing the initiative and keeping the coalition's enemies on the defensive.

How effective that strategy will be in the long term remains to be seen.

But the guerrilla attack on a US convoy only 20km (13 miles) from Balad on Sunday, causing casualties among American soldiers travelling on an open truck on the main highway from Baghdad, signalled that anti-coalition elements were not intimidated by the huge Peninsula Strike campaign.

It also showed how deadly a hit-and-run guerrilla war could be in such terrain.

Military and political analysts single out several factors to explain the resurgence of hostile activity against the coalition forces.

When coalition forces swept into Iraq, they necessarily moved along main strategic routes and left aside large areas of countryside.

Some of these pockets have turned out to contain - or have given refuge to - elements hostile to the occupation forces.

The Americans themselves have consolidated their initial basic occupation and have begun seeking to extend and complete their control, probing into areas they had previously neglected and receiving intelligence about pockets of resistance.

Social improvements needed

The remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath party and other loyalist forces such as Saddam's Fedayeen (guerrillas) have had time to regroup and catch their breath after the initial invasion.

Burned out equipment at Iraqi 'training camp'
One of the suspect sites raided by US forces
According to US military officials, they have devised new and more sophisticated ways of striking at the coalition forces, albeit on a local basis and without signs of a centralised national command and control system.

Political observers believe it is vital that efforts to consolidate the security situation should be underpinned by rapid action to improve social and economic conditions, and to fill the huge political vacuum left by the collapse of a strong and all-pervasive dictatorship.

"So far it seems that the violence against the Americans has been rather sporadic and is probably individual acts of violence rather than well-organised and co-ordinated actions," said Adnan Pachachi, a respected veteran Sunni Muslim politician who returned from exile after the regime collapsed.

"But of course that could happen too, because there's a lot of discontent in the country," he warned.

"People are impatient, they had hoped that things would improve quickly and they have not improved.

Need to act quickly

"With the problems of security and living conditions, I wouldn't rule out an explosion," said Mr Pachachi.

"I don't think it's imminent, but the danger signs are there of course, and that's why speed is of the essence.

"I think the installation of an Iraqi government or administration quickly could dispel some of these fears and improve the general situation."

The head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, is trying to put together an Iraqi interim authority whose members will be appointed by the coalition after a great deal of consultation with Iraqi notables around the country.

Earlier thoughts of having some kind of election by a national convention were discarded because the multiplicity and fractiousness of the vying political contenders meant the process would be very protracted.

But even the more limited political exercise now envisaged will take at least another month before what Mr Bremer calls "some elements of an Iraqi interim administration" will be established.

Coalition officials say they want every Iraqi to be able to identify with that authority and feel that he or she is in some way represented there.

That will be hard to achieve, but the price of failure may be high.

The BBC's Chris Morris
"US forces have been hitting the resistance hard"

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