BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraq insurgency is far larger than the 5,000 guerrillas previously thought to be at its core, U.S. military officials say, and it’s being led by well-armed Iraqi Sunnis.
Although U.S. military analysts disagree over the exact size, dozens of regional cells, often led by tribal sheiks and inspired by Sunni Muslim imams, can call upon part-time fighters to boost forces to as high as 20,000 — an estimate reflected in the insurgency’s continued strength after U.S. forces killed as many as 4,000 in April alone.
And some insurgents are highly specialized — one Baghdad cell, for instance, has two leaders, one assassin, and two groups of bomb-makers.
The developing intelligence picture of the insurgency contrasts with the commonly stated view in the Bush administration that the fighting is fueled by foreign warriors intent on creating an Islamic state.
“We’re not at the forefront of a jihadist war here,” said a U.S. military official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the guerrillas have enough popular support among nationalist Iraqis angered by the presence of U.S. troops that they cannot be militarily defeated.
The military official, who has logged thousands of miles driving around Iraq to meet with insurgents or their representatives, said a skillful Iraqi government could co-opt some of the guerrillas and reconcile with the leaders instead of fighting them.
“We know who the key people are in all the different cities, and generally how they operate,” he said. “The problem is getting actionable information so you can either attack them, arrest them or engage them.”
Even as Iraqi leaders wrangle over the contentious issue of offering a broad amnesty to guerrilla fighters, the new Iraqi military and intelligence corps have begun gathering and sharing information on the insurgents with the U.S. military, providing a sharper picture of a complex insurgency.
“Nobody knows about Iraqis and all the subtleties in culture, appearance, religion and so forth better than Iraqis themselves,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Baggio, a military spokesman at Multinational Corps headquarters in Baghdad. “We’re very optimistic about the Iraqis’ use of their own human intelligence to help root out these insurgents.”
The intelligence boost has allowed American pilots to bomb suspected insurgent safe houses over the past two weeks, with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi saying Iraqis supplied information for at least one of those air strikes. Estimates of the insurgents’ manpower tend to be low. Last week, a former coalition official said 4,000 to 5,000 Baathists form the core of the insurgency, with other attacks committed by a couple hundred supporters of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and hundreds of other foreign fighters.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the figure of 5,000 insurgents “was never more than a wag and is now clearly ridiculous.”
“Part-timers are difficult to count, but almost all insurgent movements depend on cadres that are part-time and that can blend back into the population,” he said.
One hint that the number is larger is the sheer volume of suspected insurgents — 22,000 — who have cycled through U.S.-run prisons. Most have been released. U.S. military documents show a guerrilla band mounting attacks in Baghdad that consists of two leaders, four sub-leaders and 30 members, broken down by activity, including assassins and teams launching mortar and rocket attacks.
Most of the insurgents, almost all Iraqi, are fighting for a bigger role in a secular society, not a Taliban-like Islamic state, the military official said.
Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander of Mideast operations, said Iraq’s insurgents have a big advantage over guerrillas elsewhere: plenty of arms, money, and training. Iraq’s lack of a national identity card system — and guerrillas’ refusal to plan attacks by easily intercepted telephone calls — makes them difficult to track.
“They have learned a great deal over the last year, and with far more continuity than the rotating U.S. forces and Iraqi security forces,” Cordesman said of the guerrillas. “They have learned to react very quickly and in ways our sensors and standard tactics cannot easily deal with.”