Despite US claims of progress in quelling the insurgency in Iraq, it remains as robust as ever and could grow a good deal stronger, according to a new study released Thursday.
The study by two veteran defense analysts working for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy also said the US operation in Iraq was at a "tipping point" that will last for six to nine months.
"I think the outcome of this tipping period is probably going to dictate whether or not the US effort in Iraq succeeds or fails," analyst Jeffrey White said at a lunch unveiling the report.
The study said the insurgency, comprised of nationalists, members of Saddam Hussein's toppled regime and foreign Islamic fighters, showed no sign of losing steam 32 months after the US-led invasion.
"Although thousands of insurgents have been killed and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been detained ... incident and casualty data reinforce the impression that the insurgency is as robust and lethal as ever," it said.
Moreover, the researchers said, the insurgency has managed to exploit only a fraction of the disgruntled minority Sunni Muslim population with any kind of military training.
"Should the insurgency succeed in exploiting this untapped potential, it could greatly increase its military capabilities," they wrote.
The report was prepared by White, who spent 34 years at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and Michael Eisenstadt, a former civilian-military analyst with the US army.
The tone contrasted with the assertion in the "national strategy for victory in Iraq" unveiled by President George W. Bush on Wednesday that US forces were making "significant progress" in containing the insurgency.
Eisenstadt and White said the war in Iraq was still winnable, but added that the fight "will be protracted and costly, and is likely to be punctuated by additional setbacks."
US officials cited by the report estimated that the Sunni insurgency counted up to 20,000 members, including 3,500 active fighters. White said the total number of supporters could top 100,000.
While Washington has billed Iraq as the central front in its war on terror, White said foreign jihadists represented only 5-7 percent of the insurgency and did not account for the majority of attacks or fatalities.
But he said say the anti-American forces were making extensive use of religion and, in a new development, former members of Saddam's largely secular regime were identifying increasingly with the Islamists.
"There is some kind of merging going on," White told the lunchtime audience. "Whether this is a marriage of convenience or a marriage of commitment remains to be seen."
The report said the insurgency had no hierarchy, but was a "web of networks" drawing financial support from inside and outside Iraq. It said support from Syria and Iran was "not insignificant" but not essential.
"The insurgency has access to all the weapons, explosives, financial resources, and trained manpower it needs, in amounts sufficient to sustain current activity levels indefinitely -- assuming continued Sunni political support," it said.
The analysts said the insurgents had scored "important tactical and operational successes" while establishing themselves as a major force in the Sunni community and sowing doubts in the United States about the continued presence of 160,000 US troops.
"This isn't just random activity or terrorist activity," White said. "The insurgents are actually conducting a purposeful kind of strategy in Iraq and are trying to counter the very kinds of things that we're trying to do."
But the report noted the insurgents were vulnerable on several counts, lacking a unified leadership and unqualified support from many Sunnis, and tarred by the brutality of the jihadists' attacks on civilians.