By LOLITA C. BALDOR
Up to 80 percent of the attacks in one of Iraq’s most troubled provinces are against civilians rather than the U.S. military, a deliberate shift in tactics over the past eight months, a U.S. commander said Friday.
The description of kidnappings, assassinations and other attacks in Diyala province followed testimony Thursday by two U.S. generals to Congress that an upsurge in violence in Iraq could drive the country into civil war.
"Initially we were the target of just about 60 percent of the attacks," Col. Brian Jones, commander of the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said Friday.
Now, he said, "we are seeing anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of the attacks, and a majority of the attacks are now amongst the civilian population."
The attacks in Diyala, north of Baghdad, often are assassinations or kidnappings for extortion, Jones told Pentagon reporters in a briefing from Iraq.
The Bush administration and military leaders have been reluctant to characterize the sectarian violence as a civil war. But on Thursday, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee that it could lead that that.
Jones said the kidnappings provide money for insurgent operations, but it is not clear whether the abductions are orchestrated by local militia groups or foreign fighters.
"It’s very difficult to classify what’s being conducted by insurgents as opposed to what’s sectarian because there are so many interests that collide here in Diyala," Jones said. He noted that while Sunnis accounts for a majority of the population, the provincial government is run more by Shiites and Kurds.
Jones offered an optimistic assessment of the Iraqi Army units in his region, saying he believes they will be ready to operate on their own by the end of this year or the middle of next year. He said the units are not independent yet because they lack military intelligence capabilities and logistical support, such as the ability to get enough gas to run their trucks.
When asked why the Iraqi Army’s progress has not stemmed the violence, he said the situation would be much worse without them.
"I can’t imagine what the violence would be like if the (Iraqi) army wasn’t working," he said. "I think what you’ll see is a peak in the violence, and I think it’ll start to drop off."