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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March, 2005, 05:04 GMT
Iraq insurgents seize initiative
The BBC's Jim Muir
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

A spate of recent attacks in Iraq has underlined the determination of the insurgents to regain the initiative, following general elections which they had vowed - and failed - to disrupt, and which many Iraqis see as a qualified success.

Identity papers lie strewn in a pool of blood and water after a suicide bomber blasted a crowd of police and national guards recruits as they gathered outside a clinic in Hilla
Insurgents are determined not to be stopped by elections
Five weeks on from the elections, the new parliament has not yet convened.

The formation of a government has got bogged down in protracted and complex negotiations between the political factions which emerged from the polls with seats in the new assembly.

There are fears that a prolonged delay could signal a loss of momentum and play into the hands of the insurgents in the make-or-break weeks that lie ahead.

"The insurgency is already taking advantage of the paralysis in government," a senior security official said.

"If there is more delay in forming a new administration, I have no doubt that there will be bad repercussions - there already are, and it's getting bigger every day."

Swift action

Officials want to see swift action by the politicians to draw Sunni leaders back into the political process, cutting some of the ground from under the insurgents within the partly alienated Sunni community where they have their roots.

Having foreigners around is the wrong way to approach a disgruntled population - foreign armies are a problem, not a solution
Iraqi official
Political drift is also having repercussions in the security arena, where the battle is to build up the Iraqi police and army forces so that they can take on the insurgents.

Recruiting centres are one of the prime targets for attack. Hundreds of police and army recruits have died.

"Normally we have no problem filling the places of those who fall," said a security source.

"But with officials feeling that everything is about to change, nobody is taking decisions they fear might be controversial, like approving the application of recruits who might have a Baathist past. So things are already slowing down because of the vacuum."

Although figures can be misleading, the general level of attacks since the 30 January elections is thought to have dropped a little from the highs recorded in the run-up to the poll.

Suicide attacks

One security analysis showed 727 insurgent attacks of one sort or another in February, with 627 people killed, including 42 members of the Multi-National Force, 213 Iraqi security personnel, and 329 civilians.

Security officials believe that three-quarters of the attacks are carried out by networks loyal to the former Baathist regime, though they do not claim responsibility in their own name.

Destroyed vehicle in Baquba following the bomb attack [03/03/05]
Suicide bombers have carried out devastating attacks
But most of the suicide bomb attacks - including the most deadly ever, at Hilla on 28 February - are the work of the radical Islamic strand of the insurgency, often carried out by non-Iraqi Arab militants.

The announcement by the Iraqi authorities - just a day before the Hilla blast - that Saddam Hussein's half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti had been apprehended by the authorities was hailed as a victory in the battle against the insurgency.

His name was on two wanted lists - the US military's "pack of cards" of the 55 figures deemed most culpable for the former regime's crimes, and the list of people wanted for activities connected with the insurgency.

The interim Iraqi government said he was operating out of neighbouring Syria, and formally asked Damascus to extradite him and a list of others.

Senior officials say he was handed over by the Syrians to American forces on the Syrian-Iraqi border, and he is still in US custody in Iraq.

'No difference'

Despite the optimistic note sounded by announcements about his detention, officials do not believe it will have a significant impact in diminishing the insurgency.

Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti as featured on the US forces' pack of cards
Iraqis say the capture of Saddam's half-brother will make no difference
"It won't make any difference to the insurgency, though it may demoralise some people who trust Syria," said one senior source.

"He is one of so many, and not the one we would have chosen. They just gave us one guy, for whom they had no further use.

"We came down to a list of a dozen most wanted, and all we got was him."

"He was just a symbol," said another security official. "It's more important to get the leaders of the insurgency. There are cells everywhere, with shared objectives, and the funding is still coming in."

Iraqi officials are not optimistic that the handover of Sabawi Ibrahim heralds as new era of positive cooperation with the Syrians, whom they blame for much of the insurgency.

"They know more about our internal situation than we do," said one. "If they really wanted to help us, we would have the best intelligence in the Middle East. But that's not possible. We don't expect them to serve us, just not to hurt us. But that would take a very long process for them to stop."


Security officials in the outgoing administration believe that, in addition to beefing up Iraqi police and army forces, combating the insurgency needs an urgent improvement in Iraqi intelligence information and assessment.

US troops on patrol near the Green Zone in Baghdad
There are concerns about how US soldiers interact with locals
"A lot of information at the moment is wasted, in the provinces and elsewhere," said one official. "This is the number one priority."

While they admit that Iraqi security forces are not yet strong enough to take over from the US-led coalition, some officials would also like to see a change in the way the coalition troops - especially the Americans - operate and interact with the Iraqis.

"Having foreigners around is the wrong way to approach a disgruntled population," said one senior official.

"Foreign armies are a problem, not a solution. They should be kept in barracks to provide backup for the Iraqi forces, which alone should have powers of arrest and detention."

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