TERENCE SMITH: A month ago, Iraqis in the town of Hillah suffered the deadliest single insurgent attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. More than 150 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car next to a line of police recruits waiting for health tests.
The Hillah attack drew attention because many Iraqis were killed and because it brought thousands of Iraqis into the streets to protest the insurgency, not the occupation. The insurgents' intensified focus on Iraqis has been noted by ordinary Iraqis. For instance, this response after an improvised explosive device went off in Baghdad and hit a car carrying an entire family.
MAN (Translated): A whole family has perished. The insurgents didn't target the American troops; they target families and Iraqi police who maintain the security of the country.
TERENCE SMITH: Whatever the target, the violence continued over the weekend. Insurgents carried out a string of attacks around Iraq. In Haswa, 40 miles south of Baghdad, they targeted a police car and killed 14.
MAN ON STREET (Translated): A police car was driving. A vehicle laden with barrels drove side by side with the police car and exploded, causing many casualties.
TERENCE SMITH: The recent attacks have drawn many Iraqis into the streets to protest against the insurgency. Last week a group gathered in front of the Syrian embassy in Baghdad, claiming that many of the insurgents get into Iraq at the border with Syria.
MAN ON STREET (Translated): We don't want a Syrian embassy in Iraq because they are pushing the terrorists towards Iraq and killing young people from the Iraqi national guards and police.
TERENCE SMITH: Coincidentally, American casualties are down so far in March to 30 U.S. Military deaths, compared with 58 the month before. Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq earlier this month and thanked Iraqi military recruits, who have been involved in more firefights against the insurgents. A major program is under way for the U.S. forces to train Iraqi soldiers and officers.
Later, Gen. Myers talked with reporters in Jordan and offered this assessment: "I came away more positive than I've ever been - I think we're getting some momentum built up against the insurgency." But even as more Iraqis are fighting the insurgents, the elected government is still not in place, two months after the national elections.
Insurgents sent the newly elected assembly a message two weeks ago when the parliament met for the first time. They launched a series of mortars near the heavily fortified meeting place.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on the state of the insurgency and the U.S. efforts to create Iraqi security forces, we get three perspectives. Wayne White spent 30 years with the State Department focusing on Middle East intelligence. He is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Liddy is in the Marine Corps Reserves and was with the marines who fought their way into Baghdad in 2003. He is a lawyer in private practice.
And Greg Jaffe is the Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Recently, he was embedded with U.S. forces training Iraqi security forces. Welcome to all three of you.
Wayne White, Gen. Myers thinks that the U.S. and Iraqi forces are gaining momentum, gaining perhaps an upper hand over the insurgency. Do you share his optimism?
WAYNE WHITE: I'm glad to see the violence down and that's clearly happened. But I think the most insightful observation was made on the Hill earlier this month by the head of DIA, who pointed out -
TERENCE SMITH: The Defense Intelligence Agency.
WAYNE WHITE: Exactly. He pointed out that even though the insurgents numbers are down, the numbers of attacks, they're still way above the numbers experienced last year at this time. That's way above numbers that will permit reconstruction or a return to normalcy, a reduction in the -- let's put it the fear factor on the part of the society we're trying to rebuild there.
TERENCE SMITH: So down but still high, still a big problem.
WAYNE WHITE: Exactly, a big problem.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Col. Liddy, you're in touch with U.S. officers on the ground there who are dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. What's their perspective?
LT. COL. RAYMOND J. LIDDY: Well, they're very encouraged, particularly since if you take a look at the recent activities of the Iraqi security guard. It was widely reported that the Iraqi security forces did a very good job in gaining the intelligence necessary to help plan and execute the raid in the training camp.
Now I know that the number of casualties remains disputed. A lot of my friends who were over there and have recently come back and are familiar with the current quality of training of the Iraqi security forces were heartened by the fact that the security forces, the Iraqi security forces there, were able to gain their intelligence from Iraqis in the area and that they took part in a significant manner in that attack, that their command-and-control structure really held. And this is something that is very encouraging that we're starting to see the training pay off.
The type of training that I witnessed when I was in Baghdad a couple years ago, where we had just a basic sort of field-expedient, if you will, training of the Iraqi forces to just do basic guard duty, basic checkpoints. Now we're starting to see the benefits of our training of the non-commissioned officer corps and of the officer corps.
TERENCE SMITH: Greg Jaffe, you were with units in Iraq recently that were doing this training. When you talked to the officers and others there, the Americans, do they feel they're making some progress in this training process?
GREG JAFFE: I think they do. They particularly feel with each fight the Iraqis get stronger. With each fight you have attrition, but the core that you have that's willing to fight and willing to work with the Americans, I think, grows. They still have their concerns. And I think they still agree that it's going to be a long, long way forward. It's not going to happen quickly or soon.
TERENCE SMITH: And is it a steady progress, or is it a step forward and a step back? What's the pattern?
GREG JAFFE: I think it's a step forward and a step back. You have a fight. After the fight, they return home. You have attrition, in some cases a large amount of attrition. In some cases half a unit may disappear.
TERENCE SMITH: Attrition by desertion.
GREG JAFFE: Desertion, exactly. But the half that remains is a battle-tested corps. You add on to that and lose half of that. But then that half remains. You grow in that stair-step fashion, a little bit ahead, falling back, a little bit ahead, falling back.
TERENCE SMITH: Wayne White, is there a coherent way to analyze the pattern of the insurgency itself and the insurgents? Are they growing, shrinking in number? Are they more or less aggressive? Are they focusing their targets differently?
WAYNE WHITE: It's very difficult to get a general picture because the insurgency is such a bizarre animal. It's ex-Baathists; it's Sunni Arabs who join up with those elements; some of them are terrorists from outside -- a vast mix of elements. Probably if you get a key insurgent to give you an estimate of the number, he'd give you an estimate that was off by a long shot.
The interesting thing is that, yes, they learn. They have - they do not have a horizontal learning curve. Basically they're trying to match our tactics. As we shift to try to put more of a burden on Iraqi forces, they shift and start targeting Iraqi forces. So they adapt and shift and move with us.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Col. Liddy, more and more the targets seem in the daily reporting to be Iraqi police recruits and other security forces recruits, as though that's really where the insurgents are putting their effort now.
LT. COL. RAYMOND J. LIDDY: That certainly does appear to be so. And I agree with the comments that we just heard that the focus is not on U.S. forces, but the focus is on these Iraqi security forces and trying to break their commitment to taking over the security of their country, which, of course, is instrumental for not only their government to stand up, but also for the eventual scheduled removal of U.S. forces there. So I agree with that.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Greg Jaffe, when you were there, were U.S. forces conducting themselves as many operations as before? In theory, of course, they eventually hope to turn a large part of the fieldwork over to the Iraqi forces.
GREG JAFFE: I got the sense that a lot of the daily patrolling was being done in many more instances by the Iraqis. And the Iraqis were in many ways better at the daily patrolling. I mean, they spoke the language; they knew when something looks different. And the Americans had ceded a lot to them. And I think the Iraqis were proving effective at doing that.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, in one of your articles you described a situation where an Iraqi saw something wrong and sensed that this was a danger right in front of them.
GREG JAFFE: Exactly. He was guarding the entrance to a mosque. A guy walked up and said, "I've come to my mosque to pray." The way the American described the incident to me -- I wasn't there -- the Iraqi pulled out a gun and fired a couple of rounds into the guy's chest.
When the American ran up to him and said "What did you do," the guy said, "his accent wasn't right. I knew this wasn't from his neighborhood. I knew this wasn't his mosque." They lifted up his robe, and there were grenades strapped to his body.
TERENCE SMITH: So that was something just knowing the accent, knowing the language was enough to detect it.
GREG JAFFE: He immediately knew this guy was an outsider and didn't belong, yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: Wayne White, do you have any larger picture of the progress of this effort to turn over the situation on the ground? Again, I recognize this is difficult to quantify or appraise, but that is what this is about.
WAYNE WHITE: It's what it's about. It's going to be a long, slow grind as we get these Iraqi forces up and fit for duty that in any way resembles what we're doing or we've been doing in Iraq. A lot of it also relates to political engagement.
We can't separate the battle to form a government with the battle against the insurgency. If we cannot draw the vast bulk of Sunni Arab community into the political mainstream in Iraq, we're going to continue to have insurgency and dissatisfaction from that quarter.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, Col. Liddy, Gen. Abizaid, the commanding general there, said that as long as that political instability continues -- he was quoted to this effect over the weekend -- the chance for physical violence increases, so he also tied it directly. Do you and the officers you talk to?
LT. COL. RAYMOND J. LIDDY: I do. I think that a lot of them believe that the security really needs to be in place in order to allow the government to foster. We're talking a little bit about a chicken and egg here, but from our point of view on the ground, my friends who are still over there, they believe that you really need to have that good security set in for the government to prosper and to take hold.
But it looks like the Iraqi security forces are coming along. They're doing very well, better than you know, better than expected. And we're also seeing a lot of the civilians, civilian Iraqis, step forward and really support the security forces and to, as your report indicated, start to protest against and even take up arms against some of the insurgency. And that is what you need to hold up that government, to allow that government to form.
TERENCE SMITH: Greg Jaffe, did you see any of that? Did you see either protests against the insurgents or, as the colonel says, people actually taking up arms against them?
GREG JAFFE: Yeah. Absolutely. People taking up arms against them clearly happened in the run-up to the election and immediately afterwards. American officers started noticing these battalions popping up in and around Baghdad primarily. Most of them were coming up from the South.
In fact, they began to call them sort of pop-up brigades, seven, eight hundred man units that just appeared almost out of nowhere. If you were a tribal sheik and you could raise that many men, the ministry of defense would start to equip you with guns and body armor and declare you a brigade commander of 700 men -- a lot like what happened during the U.S. Civil War.
TERENCE SMITH: So these sort of irregular units would be in support of the government, but not under the command of the government?
GREG JAFFE: Well, sort of under the command of the government because they would be sponsored by the government, which would provide them weapons, and they would be incorporated loosely into the command-and-control of the government, but it was a messy situation in some ways. I mean, if you - the First Calvary Division which was in Baghdad, for them it was a command-and-control nightmare.
They had these units that they were moving through their battle space that they didn't know. On the other hand, the Americans didn't want to quash this initiative. They felt like this was a sort of public outpouring. People were getting upset, and they were willing to stand up to the insurgency. The last thing you wanted to do was tell them to sit back down.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Greg Jaffe, Co. Liddy and Wayne White, thank you all three very much.