Five men met in an automobile in a Baghdad park a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in April 2003, according to U.S. intelligence sources. One of the five was Saddam. The other four were among his closest advisers. The agenda: how to fight back against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. A representative of Saddam's former No. 2, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, was there. But the most intriguing man in the car may have been a retired general named Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, who had been a senior member of the Military Bureau, a secret Baath Party spy service. The bureau's job had been to keep an eye on the Iraqi military--and to organize Baathist resistance in the event of a coup. Now a U.S. coup had taken place, and Saddam turned to al-Ahmed and the others and told them to start "rebuilding your networks."
The 45-minute meeting was pieced together months later by U.S. military intelligence. It represents a rare moment of clarity in the dust storm of violence that swirls through central Iraq. The insurgency has grown well beyond its initial Baathist core to include religious extremist and Iraqi nationalist organizations, and plain old civilians who are angry at the American occupation. But Saddam's message of "rebuilding your networks" remains the central organizing principle.
More than two years into the war, U.S. intelligence sources concede that they still don't know enough about the nearly impenetrable web of what Iraqis call ahl al-thiqa (trust networks), which are at the heart of the insurgency. It's an inchoate movement without a single inspirational leader like Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh--a movement whose primary goal is perhaps even more improbable than the U.S. dream of creating an Iraqi democracy: restoring Sunni control in a country where Sunnis represent just 20% of the population. Intelligence experts can't credibly estimate the rebels' numbers but say most are Iraqis. Foreigners account for perhaps 2% of the suspected guerrillas who have been captured or killed, although they represent the vast majority of suicide bombers. ("They are ordnance," a U.S. intelligence official says.) The level of violence has been growing steadily. There have been roughly 80 attacks a day in recent weeks. Suicide bombs killed more than 200 people, mostly in Baghdad, during four days of carnage last week, among the deadliest since Saddam's fall.
More than a dozen current and former intelligence officers knowledgeable about Iraq spoke with TIME in recent weeks to share details about the conflict. They voiced their growing frustration with a war that they feel was not properly anticipated by the Bush Administration, a war fought with insufficient resources, a war that almost all of them now believe is not winnable militarily. "We're good at fighting armies, but we don't know how to do this," says a recently retired four-star general with Middle East experience. "We don't have enough intelligence analysts working on this problem. The Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] puts most of its emphasis and its assets on Iran, North Korea and China. The Iraqi insurgency is simply not top priority, and that's a damn shame."
The intelligence officers stressed these points: