By Andrew Marshall
COMBAT OUTPOST CAHILL, Iraq, Nov 16 (Reuters) - "I think that was pretty close, there," said Major-General Rick Lynch, as another bone-rattling explosion shook Combat Outpost Cahill.
The small U.S. base southeast of Baghdad had been under sporadic attack all morning from insurgents firing mortar bombs from hideouts in the palm groves and ruined buildings nearby.
As Lynch arrived with Reuters journalists in two Black Hawk helicopters, another wave of attacks began.
Insurgents with AK47s opened fire on the Black Hawks, and as they landed in a swirl of sand, more mortar blasts rent the air. Lynch — and the Reuters team — hastened towards safe cover.
"We always know we’re in the right place when this happens," said Colonel Wayne Grigsby, who leads the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, part of Lynch’s 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for security in the provinces south of Baghdad.
"It just irritates the hell out of them that we’re here."
The U.S. response is swift and devastating — mortars and heavy-calibre machine guns are fired from the base and an A-10 "Warthog" plane passes overhead spitting shells from its Gatling gun. Three insurgents on a water tower are reported killed.
It’s a typical confrontation in the Iraq war — insurgents with low-tech weaponry emerging from hiding to launch pinprick attacks, and then trying to slip back into the shadows before the U.S. military can hit back with vastly superior firepower.
But the nature of the war is changing. Frustrated by years of setbacks, the American military is pursuing a new strategy.
It involves putting more boots on the ground — the 30,000 extra troops sent to Iraq in the "surge" ordered by President George W. Bush — and distributing them among communities, in small outposts like Cahill, instead of basing them mainly in large forward operating bases away from population centres.
The military says the plan is having impressive results.
EVERY FLAVOUR OF INSURGENT
The key focus of the surge was to reduce the savage violence in Baghdad that had made normal daily life impossible. But a large proportion of the new troops went to Lynch to help him try to block the flow of weapons and insurgents into the capital.
The area south of Iraq is a sectarian patchwork, with both Sunni and Shi’ite towns. It includes the area that became known as the "triangle of death" earlier in the war because of the frequency of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians.
Lynch says he has "every flavour" of insurgent in his area: "We have Sunni extremists, Shia extremists, and what we call the Persian influence." But he argues that it is a mistake to focus too much on sectarian violence in the region.
"There’s way too much emphasis on civil war and sectarian violence, because we’re not seeing it. What we are seeing is violence," he said, adding that a lot of the violence was due to "thugs and criminals" vying for power, rather than insurgents.
"I tell folks all the time one way to train to conduct operations in Iraq is to watch the last season of the Sopranos. You get a sense of the conflict among like individuals."
Violence has fallen dramatically in Baghdad, according to U.S. tallies of attacks and Iraqi casualty statistics. Part of the decline is due to the heavy setback dealt to al Qaeda by tribal leaders in Anbar province, and to an uneasy ceasefire by radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
Lynch says the surge south of Baghdad has also made a decisive contribution, by stemming the flow of suicide car bombs and insurgents heading into the capital via their "ratline" along the Tigris river, and limiting arms coming in from Iran.
He says there was a significant drop in violence and crime in his own region, including a 59 percent drop in roadside bomb blasts since the start of July.
"The number of attacks is right down," he said. "Although we’re having one attack right now..."
STAYING THE COURSE
But one major question hangs over the surge strategy — will U.S. forces remain in place long enough to ensure the reduction in violence is permanent? With mounting calls in the United States for troops to come home, Bush has said improved security means 20,000 to 30,000 troops can leave by mid-2008.
The U.S. military says the key is to ensure Iraqi security forces are ready to take over as American soldiers leave.
"The only people to win this counter-insurgency fight are the people of Iraq," Lynch said. "The key is generating Iraqi security forces that can be a sustained presence."
For now, given the highly variable quality of Iraqi police and army units, and a shortage of manpower, Lynch’s soldiers are also establishing "concerned citizens" groups — armed locals who man checkpoints and cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Captain Patrick Moffett, one of the officers setting up such groups, describes the idea as "Neighbourhood Watch on steroids".
Lynch says stringent security checks will prevent the groups simply worsening Iraq’s bewildering array of sectarian, tribal and criminal conflicts. And as more Iraqi security forces are trained, the need for the concerned citizens will diminish.
He says the U.S. military will not leave prematurely.
"We’ve lost 117 members of Task Force Marne," Lynch said. "I’m not going to give up ground that they lost their lives for. I’m just refusing to do that." (Editing by Paul Tait)