Major arrests show a shift in Iraq
Still, attacks continue, like the one in Hilla Monday that killed more than 100 people, despite detention of top militants.
The arrest of seven key insurgents in the past two weeks, including Saddam Hussein's half-brother and top aides to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are giving a much-needed morale boost to Iraq's counterinsurgency efforts.
Indeed, some Iraqi officials see the momentum beginning to shift since the Jan. 30 elections. They say Iraqi citizens are providing more tips, and that a series of videotaped confessions by captured insurgents shown on Iraqi TV are helping discredit the rebels. "We are very close to al-Zarqawi, and I believe that there are a few weeks separating us from him," Iraq's interim national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie told the Associated Press.
Analysts agree that the string of arrests are likely to hurt the insurgency. But the decentralized nature of the uprising makes it difficult to dismantle. A massive car bombing in Hilla, Iraq, Monday underscored the point. The bomb exploded near a line of recruits for the Iraqi security forces in the southern Iraq town, killing more than 100 people, one of the largest death tolls from a car bomb in Iraq.
US military intelligence experts say the insurgency is made up of several groups with different long-term goals but the common short-term goal of forcing US troops out of Iraq. They include former Baath party members loyal to Saddam Hussein and Sunni extremists, like the Jordanian militant Zarqawi, who see Iraq as part of a larger global war against entities they feel are anti-Islamic.
"We tend to put a hierarchical Western military template [on other conflicts] but it doesn't work that way," says Lord Timothy Garden, a former officer in the British military and senior fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Lord Garden suggests the latest arrests have to go hand in hand with broader changes in the country to shut down the insurgency.
Al Iraqiya television started airing police interviews of insurgents last week. The interviews, run almost daily, have been the talk of Baghdad. In the videos, a prisoner sits behind a desk while an off-camera policeman asks questions about how many people he has killed and what operations he has carried out.
Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University in Washington says the interviews publicize government successes and "send a signal - 'Come and tell us more. It's safe now to talk' - to encourage people to come forward" with information about the insurgency.
Lord Garden says this is part of what's needed in a counterinsurgency effort. "The most important thing you've got to do is detach the general population from the insurgency. You've got to make the quality of life better all the time," he says. "We've just got to be patient and do the long haul.... The elections are one thing but people want tangible improvements in the quality of life."
But attacks like Monday's car bombing - increasingly targeting those seen as helping the US and the Iraqi government - are slowing reconstruction of basic services such as water, electricity, and disrupting supplies of gasoline and cooking fuel.
The Iraqi government has arrested several key figures in the insurgency in the past two weeks, mainly aides to Zarqawi. One of the highest-profile captures was of Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman al-Dulaimi, also known as Abu Qutaybah, who arranged safe houses and meetings for Zarqawi and was arrested Feb. 20 along with another man who occasionally served as Zarqawi's driver. Iraqi officials say Abu Qutaybah's contacts in the Anbar province of western Iraq, which has been an insurgency hotbed, make him a major catch.
"Abu Qutaybah was responsible for determining who, when, and how terrorist network leaders would meet with Zarqawi," the government said in a statement.
On Sunday, the Iraqi government announced the arrest of Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, a half brother of Saddam Hussein. He was one of some two-dozen Iraqis hand over by Syrian authorities. Mr. Hassan headed Hussein's feared intelligence services during the 1991 Gulf War, then was chief of security until 1996, when he became an adviser to Hussein. Iraqi officials say he was directing and financing insurgency operations from Syria.
"This is a real thug," says Ms. Yaphe. "All of [Hussein's] half brothers were the head of intelligence at some point. But Sabawi oversaw the looting and destruction of Kuwait and suppressing the Kurds."
She considers him an important capture. "He would have had a lot of money and knowledge of the thugs of Saddam's Fedayeen" who are working in the insurgency.
Four of the seven arrested recently were believed to be insurgent leaders in Baquba, a restive town northeast of Baghdad. Iraqi officials announced last Thursday that two of them, Mohammed Najam Ibrahim and his brother, were suspected of carrying out several beheadings in the area.
"Maybe somebody turned someone in. The point is to find someone who could lead you to others," says Yaphe.
"Certainly it's progress when you find the big players," says Yaphe. But she doesn't expect the arrests to affect much on the ground because the insurgency is so diverse and doesn't have a hierarchy of leaders.
Even as Iraqi and US forces pick off mid-level and even some top-level leaders of the disparate groups that make up the insurgency, analysts say the groups can't be killed or jailed out of existence.
"There are going to be more people to replace them ... these are zealous people. Until the US troops are withdrawn any [arrest] they make, the people will be replaced," says Ivan Eland, director of Center of Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in California. "Even if we catch Zarqawi I think this insurgency will keep going on."