A senior U.S. general says insurgents fighting a coalition offensive in western Iraq appear to be better trained and equipped and more willing to fight, than most insurgent forces seen in the country in the past.
The chief of operations for the U.S. military, Lieutenant General James Conway, says the U.S. forces trying to root out insurgents in the northwestern corner of Al-Anbar Province are engaged in what he calls a "significant battle" against a "willful and capable" insurgency. In this offensive, code named Operation Matador, General Conway says the U.S. military is finding some new developments among the insurgents.
"There are reports that these people are in uniforms, in some cases are wearing protective vests, and there's some suspicion that their training exceeds that of what we have seen with other engagements further east," he said.
The general later said the reference to uniforms was "one line out of one report," and he could not say what type of uniforms they were. He also said the presence of some uniforms does not change the character of the overall insurgency, which is a guerilla-type of force. But he said these insurgents in western al-Anbar province are standing and fighting, and even launched a counter-offensive, rather than fleeing as many insurgents have done in the past when faced with a coalition offensive.
"It's an interesting development, and I think time will tell what happens here, whether or not they will attempt now to flee the battlefield if they sense that they are surrounded and can be sacrificed. If they are intending on being martyred, that has to be cranked into the equation with this particular enemy," he said.
General Conway says well-organized groups of insurgents have stood and fought before, notably in Fallujah, but that is not the usual pattern. He also reported that Iraqi forces have not been involved in the offensive in western al-Anbar Province. He said the region is outside their usual area of operation, but they might be sent to the area later.
The general also said there are indications that some Sunnis in the region want to join the political process, and that the insurgents are engaged in what he called an 'intimidation campaign' against those people. "It is a region that is in turmoil, and in some regards in conflict with itself. And we're starting to see that, as a matter of fact, in some of the reporting, where even some of the Sunni elements are starting to have conflict with each other over which direction the province should go," he said.
On Monday, the new governor of al-Anbar Province was kidnapped, and some reports say the move was part of a conflict between pro- and anti-insurgency clans. General Conway could not confirm that.
Officers in western Iraq reported on Monday that information from captured documents and insurgents was helping them expand their operation to attack more insurgent targets. On Tuesday, General Conway said the coalition is also getting more information from ordinary Iraqis. He said Iraqi forces recently took over answering phones at a 'tip line' people can call to provide information anonymously. He said the number of calls increased ten-fold in the first week of Iraqi operations.