As insurgents in Iraq were first gaining ground in spring 2003, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed them as a ragtag collection of die-hard Saddam Hussein loyalists, foreign fighters, common criminals and other “dead-enders.”

Two years later, even as the fighting in Iraq worsened, Vice President Dick Cheney declared the insurgency to be in “its last throes.”

Now, after more than four years of grinding combat, events in Iraq have forced the Bush administration and military officials to rethink many of their long-standing assumptions about the nature of the conflict.

Officials now acknowledge that Iraq’s insurgency has grown more complex, with a greater array of enemies than at any time in the past.

“The operational environment in Iraq is the most complex and challenging I have ever seen — much more complex than it was when I left last in September 2005, and vastly more complex than what I recall in Central America, Haiti and the Balkans,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during a recent Pentagon briefing.

Outside experts agree that the conflict has become more complicated as it has progressed.

“Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse mix of conflicts, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shiite militias and foreign jihadists,” Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and longtime Iraq watcher, wrote in a report published in April by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., policy research group.

‘A unique conflict’

Frank Hoffman, an analyst with the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, an internal Marine Corps think tank in Quantico, Va., said there are least 20 major armed groups in Iraq.

In an essay to be published this summer in the Army War College’s “Parameters,” Hoffman argues that the dizzying array of actors, fueled by competing strains of religious inspiration, linked by the Internet and operating mostly in large urban areas, make Iraq difficult to comprehend.

“I think this is a unique conflict that we are having trouble with conceptualizing,” said Hoffman, who is also a retired Marine officer and senior fellow at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Sunni insurgents, however, including former Saddam loyalists and al-Qaida in Iraq, an extremist group that emerged after the 2003 invasion, “are the biggies” as far as threats to U.S. forces.

Former regime supporters want to regain power, U.S. officials believe. But al-Qaida in Iraq’s goal is “to foment a crisis between Shia and Sunni, not take over, and they want as much chaos, disruption as possible,” Hoffman said.

In a May 2 speech to building contractors, President Bush said al-Qaida remains “public enemy No. 1” in Iraq.

According to Cordesman, the group and associated extremists have come to dominate the Sunni insurgency. Their ultimate aim is to re-establish the “caliphate,” a theocracy stretching across the Muslim world.

“In the process, however, the insurgency has created complex patterns of conflict that have become a broad struggle for sectarian and ethnic control of political and economic space,” he wrote in his April report.

The mosque bombing

Sunni extremists scored their biggest coup with the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, an important Shiite shrine. The event sparked a wave of sectarian reprisal killings between Shiites and Sunnis that has dramatically reshaped the face of the conflict.

“The increase in sectarian violence in 2006 following the Samarra Mosque bombing did enormous damage, literally tearing the fabric of Iraqi society, changing the demographics of Baghdad neighborhoods, and displacing millions of Iraqis,” Petraeus said.

In a review completed last January, the National Security Council warned that with the spike in sectarian violence, “the center is eroding” in Iraq, with its people growing “increasingly disillusioned with coalition efforts.”

In its latest report to Congress, the Pentagon in March acknowledged for the first time that “some elements of the situation in Iraq are properly descriptive of a ‘civil war,’ including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities and mobilization, the changing character of the violence, and population displacements.”

“People are falling backwards to their identity groups in the security vacuum we created for local order,” Hoffman said. “It’s a sectarian war as far as I can see from here.”

The Pentagon’s assessment was an echo of earlier conclusions reached by the 16 agencies within the U.S. intelligence community in the January 2007 National Intelligence on Iraq, a portion of which was made public.

But the document also warned that even civil war “does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence.”

According to the Pentagon, several conflicts are occurring simultaneously:

The Sunni extremist insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi government forces, mostly in central, western and northern Iraq.Sunni extremists versus Shiite extremists for control of Baghdad and Diyala provinces, characterized by suicide car bombings, assassinations, kidnapping and murder, mostly of civilians. Fighting is primarily between al-Qaida in Iraq and the Madhi Army, a radical Shiite militia.Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen vying for control of oil-rich Kirkuk and other cities in northern Iraq.Factional Shiite fighting for control of southern Iraq, also rich in oil. The struggle is mostly between the Madhi Army and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s largest political party.Al-Qaida in Iraq versus Sunni tribesmen who have split from the group in western Anbar province.Added to the mix are Iran and Syria. The Pentagon accuses Iran of supplying Shiite militias with money, training and weapons, including explosively formed penetrators, powerful roadside bombs that can slice through the thickest U.S. armor. U.S. officials accuse Syria of providing safe haven to senior Baathists, and say Syria also serves as the primary conduit for foreign Sunni militants filtering into Iraq.

The most potent forces to emerge in Baghdad are al-Qaida in Iraq and the Madhi Army.

“Both groups are attempting to establish strongholds and expand their zones of influence in the capital, with ordinary Iraqis getting squeezed in the middle and often fleeing for other parts of the country or leaving Iraq altogether,” the Pentagon report said. “Any strategy for success must be designed to turn this trajectory around.”

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