Five more years?

A new report says the strength of the insurgency casts doubt on plans to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Published May 25, 2005 3:52PM (EDT)

It could take at least five years before Iraqi forces are strong enough to impose law and order on the country, the International Institute of Strategic Studies warned Tuesday. The think tank's report said that Iraq had become a valuable recruiting ground for al-Qaida, and Iraqi forces were nowhere near close to matching the insurgency.

John Chipman, IISS director, said that Iraqi security forces face a "huge task" and that the continuing ability of the insurgents to inflict mass casualties "must cast doubt on U.S. plans to redeploy American troops and eventually reduce their numbers."

Insurgents have killed 600 Iraqis since the new government was formed. The IISS report said: "Best estimates suggest that it will take up to five years to create anything close to an effective indigenous force able to impose and guarantee order across the country."

The report said that, on balance, U.S. policy over the past year had been effective in emboldening regional players in the Middle East and the Gulf to rally against rogue states. But it warned that the inspirational effect of the intervention in Iraq on Islamist terrorism was "the proverbial elephant in the living room. From al-Qaida's point of view, [President] Bush's Iraq policies have arguably produced a confluence of propitious circumstances: a strategically bogged down America, hated by much of the Islamic world, and regarded warily even by its allies."

Iraq "could serve as a valuable proving ground for 'blooding' foreign jihadists, and could conceivably form the basis of a second generation of capable al-Qaida leaders ... and middle-management players," the report said.

Tuesday, a statement was placed on an al-Qaida Web site claiming that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born Islamist who has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages in Iraq, had been injured. The statement, whose authenticity could not be verified, asked Muslims to pray for his recovery but did not say how or when he was injured. It said: "Let the near and far know that the injury of our leader is an honor, and a cause to close in on the enemies of God, and a reason to increase the attacks against them."

There were reports earlier this month that the U.S. military was investigating whether al-Zarqawi was at a Ramadi hospital and whether he was ill or wounded.

The think tank report points to U.S. estimates that there are between 12,000 and 20,000 hardcore insurgents in Iraq. It says that Iraqi politicians have been keen to blame the rise in sectarian violence on foreign jihadists. "But they may have overstated their case."

Insurgents demonstrated their ability to hit U.S. forces in the heart of the Iraqi capital Tuesday when a military convoy was targeted by a car bomb, killing three U.S. troops. A fourth U.S. soldier was killed in a drive-by shooting as he sat atop a Bradley fighting vehicle at an observation post in central Baghdad. The U.S. military also announced Tuesday that four soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb on Monday in Haswa, 30 miles south of the capital, bringing the total number of U.S. fatalities since May 22 to 13.

Tuesday, Iraq's new interior minister, Bayan al-Jabr, who is also a member of the ruling Shiite-led alliance, met with two prominent Sunni Muslim figures in an effort to reduce sectarian tensions. Officials said the meeting was designed to "curb all hateful attempts aiming to plan sectarian sedition among the Iraqi people."

Toby Dodge, senior fellow at the IISS and an expert on Iraq, estimated Tuesday that there are about 1,000 foreign fighters in Iraq "perfecting the use of car bombs" and causing more problems across the region, including Saudi Arabia. There seemed to be no "viable exit strategy" for foreign troops.

By Richard Norton-Taylor

By Michael Howard

MORE FROM Michael Howard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------