Age-old supply problems still vex modern battles, while newly trained Iraquis flipflop sides, taking their newly aquired skills to the opposition.
WASHINGTON, April 12 — American troops in Iraq are battling insurgents to keep open vital military supply lines in and out of Baghdad. The attacks on the supply lines are posing new hazards to civilian contractors who operate many of the convoys and siphoning short-handed combat forces away from the main fight against militants, senior commanders said Monday.
Over the weekend, American forces fought pitched battles to clear the north-south and east-west routes to and from Baghdad, and also near Falluja, for trucks to haul food, fuel, water and ammunition to soldiers and marines, top officers said. Many convoys have been delayed; others have been suspended, officials said.
The attacks on convoys, along with sabotage to roads and bridges, have opened yet another front in the week-old surge in violence in Iraq.
Two American soldiers and seven employees of the American contractor Kellogg Brown & Root were missing and feared abducted after an attack on Friday on a fuel convoy near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad.
The growing concerns over securing supply lines came as Gen. John P. Abizaid, the American commander in the Middle East, told reporters he had requested from the Pentagon the equivalent of two more combat brigades — as many as 15,000 to 20,000 troops — to keep American forces in Iraq at about 130,000 for the foreseeable future. Levels had been scheduled to decline to about 110,000 during the present troop rotation.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had signaled last week that such a step was in the offing, is considering options to honor the request, from extending the tour of thousands of First Armored Division soldiers now in Iraq to drawing on marines or soldiers elsewhere. Mr. Rumsfeld could decide as early as Tuesday, defense officials said.
“We’ve had to take extraordinary steps to get stuff to them, fighting to open up some of the routes,” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy director of military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad about clearing the supply routes.
General Kimmitt told reporters that none of the routes in Iraq were now classified by the military as “black” or “red,” meaning too dangerous to use. But he said most were “amber,” a classification that means convoy operators assume “a certain measure of risk.” He added, “It is certainly not green yet.”
The risks to civilian contractors and military convoys moving supplies from Kuwait and around Baghdad have become menacingly clear. After the attack on the Kellogg Brown & Root convoy, military officials said Monday that they feared that the nine people had been taken hostage by militants.
On Monday, a convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M-113 armored personnel carriers was attacked and burned on a road in Latifiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, according to The Associated Press. Witnesses said three people had been killed. A supply truck was also ambushed and set ablaze on Monday on the road from Baghdad’s airport. Looters moved in to carry away goods from the truck as Iraqi policemen looked on without intervening, The A.P. reported.
Commanders and contractors have said American forces are in no immediate danger of running low on essential supplies. Most units are said to keep at least a week’s supply of fuel, food and water at their bases.
Kellogg Brown & Root vowed Monday “to stay the course and move forward with the logistical support to troops,” but with unspecified changes in delivery and security procedures, a spokeswoman said.
“We are all concerned about the recent incidents in Iraq, and when hostilities intensify we revise and step up our precautions in support of our security efforts,” said Wendy Hall, the spokeswoman for Kellogg Brown & Root, which has more than 700 trucks in Kuwait and Iraq.
But John C. McCarthy, the director of projects for T.T.S. Group, a British company whose Kuwaiti affiliate ships cargo into Iraq, said his company would not operate north of Basra, in the relatively secure south.
The American-led military operation is responsible for providing overall security through Iraq, but specific protection depends on the cargo, area and threat level, officers said. Fuel and ammunition convoys routinely have armed escorts, Army officials said. Food and water shipments might have military escorts, depending on how risky the route. But as in the case of the four American security contractors killed in Falluja this month on a convoy to pick up kitchen equipment, companies hire their own private security guards for some trips.
Army and Marine helicopter gunships frequently patrol the most traveled routes, but that has not deterred some of the latest attacks.
In a teleconference from Baghdad with reporters at the Pentagon, General Abizaid also said some Iraqi security forces performed very poorly during the recent violence and underscored the need to improve their training and leadership.
“In the south, a number of units, both in the police force and also in the I.C.D.C., did not stand up to the intimidators of the forces of Sadr’s militia, and that was a great disappointment to us,” General Abizaid said, referring to the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. “In other places, such as in and around Falluja, we’ve had good, strong performances by several units.”
General Abizaid, who expressed concern that some new Iraqi police officers defected to the rebel militia loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, said the American trainers, including Army Special Forces, would have to improve the training, vetting and leadership of police, Iraqi militia and Iraqi army units.
General Abizaid also signaled that American officials would now seek greater involvement from former senior Iraqi military officials, who up to now had been largely excluded from aiding the new security forces because of their ties to Saddam Hussein’s government.
“We’ve got to get more senior Iraqis involved — former military types involved in the security forces,” General Abizaid said.