On Friday, the military said a U.S. soldier has died from wounds sustained in an insurgent attack on his patrol the night before in Baghdad. He was the 868th U.S. death in Iraq,
Officials told The Associated Press that Iraq's guerrillas can call on loyalists to boost their forces to as high as 20,000 and have enough popular support among nationalist Iraqis angered by the presence of U.S. troops that they cannot be militarily defeated.
That number is far larger than the 5,000 guerrillas previously thought to be at the insurgency's core. 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.
In other developments:
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.
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 airstrikes. But the better view of the insurgency also contradicts much of the popular wisdom about it.
Estimates of the insurgents' manpower tend to be too 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.
U.S. military analysts disagree over the size of the insurgency, with estimates running as high as 20,000 fighters when part-timers are added.
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. And in April alone, U.S. forces killed as many as 4,000 people, the military official said, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen fighting under the banner of a radical cleric.
Guerrilla leaders come from various corners of Saddam's Baath Party, including lawyers' groups, prominent families and especially from his Military Bureau, an internal security arm used to purge enemies. They've formed dozens of cells.
Most of the insurgents are fighting for a bigger role in a secular society, not a Taliban-like Islamic state, the military official said. Almost all the guerrillas are Iraqis, even those launching some of the devastating car bombings normally blamed on foreigners — usually al-Zarqawi.
The official said many car bombings bore the "tradecraft" of Saddam's former secret police and were aimed at intimidating Iraq's new security services.
Many in the U.S. intelligence community have been making similar points, but have encountered political opposition from the Bush administration, a State Department official in Washington said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Civilian analysts generally agreed, saying U.S. and Iraqi officials have long overemphasized the roles of foreign fighters and Muslim extremists — key to the Bush administration's view that the insurgency is linked to the war on terror.
The officer 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."