Global Policy Forum

Iraq Attacks Blamed on Islamic Extremists


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post
March 19, 2004

U.S. military commanders across Iraq say that a combination of foreign and indigenous Islamic extremists have eclipsed loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party as the dominant organizers and financiers of attacks on American and Iraqi security forces and civilians.

The Islamic radicals have been deemed by the commanders to be largely responsible for not just a series of high-profile suicide car bombings that have killed more than 1,000 people, but also a spate of recent attacks on U.S. troops, foreign civilians and Iraqis working with American forces. In many cases, the commanders said, religious extremists have begun to exercise leadership over cells of low-level Baathist fighters whose superiors have been captured or killed, by offering money and weapons to conduct mortar strikes, drive-by shootings and assassinations.

On the eve of the Iraq invasion's first anniversary, Islamic extremists have emerged as "the principal threat" to security in Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, which controls the capital. Officers based in restive areas outside Baghdad, including the commander of an Army battalion in Fallujah and the commander of a brigade in Baqubah, said the same trend has emerged in their areas.

In the intelligence operations room at the 1st Armored Division's headquarters, wall-mounted charts identifying and linking insurgents depict the changing battlefield. Last fall, the organizational chart of Baathist fighters and leaders stretched for 10 feet, while charts listing known Islamic radicals took up a few pieces of paper. Now, the chart of Iraqi religious extremists dominates the room, while the poster depicting Baathist activity has shrunk to half of its previous size. Smaller diagrams identify what is known about foreign Islamic extremists who have set up operations in the capital.

Military officials said evidence and intelligence from informers and interrogations suggest that foreign fighters still constitute a relatively small component of the insurgency. Dempsey said he estimated there were only about 100 "foreign terrorists" in Baghdad, organized into about six cells. In Anbar province, which stretches across western Iraq and includes the strife-torn cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr. of the 82nd Airborne Division said he believed there were a total of 50 to 80 foreign fighters in eight to 10 cells.

Military officials said they suspected that the foreign fighters were making up for what they lacked in numbers by plugging into networks of Iraqi Sunni Muslim extremists who adhere to the same radical Wahhabi brand of Islam as Osama bin Laden. The officials believe the foreigners are bringing money, technical expertise and encouragement to get hundreds of Iraqis to plant roadside bombs, assassinate people collaborating with occupation forces and detonate explosive-packed vehicles.

"We see a large connection between them," said Lt. Col. Ken Devan, the 1st Armored's senior intelligence officer, referring to indigenous extremists and foreign fighters.

Devan and other military officials said foreign fighters were trying to join several cells of indigenous religious extremists around the capital. The officials said they believed these cells drew inspiration from a handful of hard-line clerics in Iraq, but making precise connections has proved difficult.

"We know they're there based on the intelligence we've got, but we don't have, with any degree of granularity or precision, enough intelligence to be attacking them as our principal focus," Dempsey said.

Military intelligence officials said they believed three linked groups of foreign extremists were the most dominant actors in Iraq today: Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna and an organization headed by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda, was based in the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq before the war. Intelligence officials believe many Ansar al-Islam operatives have relocated south and have affiliated themselves with other extremists, although it is not clear how large a role they have played in the recent run of suicide bombings and even whether Ansar al-Islam still exists as an organization. Some military officials believe its operatives were responsible for the car bombings of the headquarters of both the United Nations and International Committee for the Red Cross in Baghdad, as well as several attacks on Iraqi police stations last year.

Ansar al-Sunna is a newer group of foreign and indigenous militants that is suspected of being linked to remnants of Ansar al-Islam. The group has asserted responsibility for several suicide bombings, including attacks on the offices of two Kurdish political parties in the northern city of Irbil on Feb. 1 that killed more than 100 people.

Lately, however, intelligence officers have shifted their focus to Zarqawi, once linked to Ansar al-Islam. U.S. officials allege that he wrote a 17-page letter claiming responsibility for two dozen bombings in recent months and outlining his plans for future attacks aimed at sparking civil war and disrupting a planned June 30 handover of sovereignty. Although Zarqawi has worked with al Qaeda, intelligence officials now believe he operates independently of bin Laden's organization and has developed his own network in Iraq.

Senior U.S. officials in Baghdad have named Zarqawi as a prime suspect in several recent bombings, including that of a Baghdad hotel Wednesday night, but they have not presented any definitive evidence to link him or his organization to the blasts. "Whether it was Zarqawi's group, Ansar al-Islam, al Qaeda -- we don't have definitive proof of that yet," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military's deputy director of operations in Iraq, said of Wednesday's bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel, in which seven people were killed. The death toll was revised downward Thursday based on new information from Iraqi officials.

The U.S.-led occupation authority has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Zarqawi. But some U.S. intelligence officials in Baghdad question whether he is as central to the bombings as spokesmen for the military and occupation authority have suggested.

"To think that Zarqawi is organizing all of these car bombings is a little much," said one U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He is probably just one of several ringleaders. There is no single organization that's behind all this. It's far more decentralized than that."

Another intelligence officer also cast doubt on the role of Zarqawi or bin Laden lieutenants as the chief organizers of the violence. "Are al Qaeda operatives here? Certainly. But are the remnants of al Qaeda directing the attacks here? We don't have clear evidence to suggest that is the case," the officer said. Devan, the 1st Armored's intelligence director, also said the presence of al Qaeda operatives in Iraq was small.

The intelligence officers said the most significant impact of al Qaeda involvement may be funding foreign and Iraqi extremists, who in turn have paid low-level Baathists to conduct non-suicide attacks. The Baathists are willing to work for the Islamic extremists, military officials said, because many of their leaders, who had been paying them between $100 and $5,000 to mount attacks, have been arrested, killed or forced to run.

"The Baathist money has dried up, and the leadership is largely gone," Devan said. "The new money and leadership is coming from the extremists."

As a consequence, Dempsey said, "Baathist operatives and trigger pullers are now working, in many cases, for the religious extremists."

"It's a marriage of necessity," he said. "The religious guys have the money. And both share the goal of trying to drive us out."

One of the clearest indications of the new alliance occurred last month in Fallujah, where military officials believe a combination of former Baath Party operatives and Islamic radicals attacked the police station, killing 23 people. "There was a collaboration," said Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine, an 82nd Airborne battalion commander who is responsible for the city. "It appeared to be directed by the extremists, but many of the guys who attacked had a level of training that goes beyond your average Islamic extremist."

Military intelligence officers said identifying cells of religious extremists is proving to be much more difficult than tracing the flow of cash and orders among the Baathists. In Fallujah, for instance, Drinkwine had identified the chief Baathist financier by early fall. The number of attacks fell dramatically after the man was caught in January, he said. "The Baathists had a clearer structure," he said. "It was easier to know who was in charge. But now, it's a whole new structure -- and it's much tougher to determine who the enemy is."

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