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Iraq Seen as Al Qaeda's Top Battlefield

Terrorist network and its affiliates are aiding Hussein loyalists, coalition officials say.

November 09, 2003|Richard C. Paddock, Alissa J. Rubin and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Answering Osama bin Laden's call for holy war in Iraq, hundreds of followers from at least eight nations have entered the country and are playing a major role in attacking Western targets and Iraqi civilians, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Operatives of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and affiliated extremist groups are collaborating with Saddam Hussein loyalists, officials say, forming an array of shadowy alliances that are emerging as one of the biggest challenges to U.S.-led efforts to bring stability to the war-torn country.

Some officials believe that Iraq is replacing Afghanistan as the global center of Islamic jihad and becoming the prime locale for extremist Muslim fighters who are eager to confront Americans on Arab soil.

As many as 2,000 Muslim fighters from as far as Sudan, Algeria and Afghanistan are operating in Iraq, officials say. Ansar al Islam, an Iraqi group that was previously active in northern Iraq, also has made a comeback, officials say. The Bush administration says Ansar has ties to Al Qaeda.

Although many of the foreign militants likely operate in small cells independent of any central command, others appear to have hooked up with Hussein loyalists who provide money, materiel and logistical support. In exchange, the foreigners provide suicide bombers and experience in guerrilla tactics.

While authorities have acknowledged the presence of some of the fighters, the role they are playing in the anti-American insurgency appears to be increasing -- and their unconventional tactics make them a formidable force. Foreign fighters are suspected of taking part in as many as a dozen suicide bombings that have killed more than 200 people in the last three months, including four nearly simultaneous attacks in Baghdad on Oct. 27.

"Since mid-July we have seen the reconstitution of Ansar al Islam and Al Qaeda," L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the U.S.-led civilian administration, said at a briefing of visiting Americans last week. "They are coming back into Iraq."

Jalal Talabani, the current president of Iraq's Governing Council, estimates that 500 to 2,000 Islamic militants from foreign countries are operating in Iraq, including some who may have arrived before the war started. Some officials of the U.S.-led coalition cite the same figure.

The largest group of militants is from neighboring Syria, officials say, while others have come from Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Palestinian territories.

"The big majority of those criminals who are committing terror actions are from Al Qaeda" and associated militant Muslim organizations, Talabani said. "Those who are making suicide attacks are from Islamic fundamentalist groups."

Before the war, President Bush contended that Al Qaeda was active in Iraq. But it was not until several months after the U.S.-led occupation began that Islamic extremists apparently took advantage of the postwar chaos and started launching terrorist attacks.

U.S. officials acknowledge that they are hobbled in their efforts to stem the apparent surge in Islamic extremism because they have little information about the attackers or their activities.

Authorities believe that some of the fighters are Al Qaeda operatives and others are members of extremist groups affiliated with the network. Officials suspect that the groups operate as independent cells but are cooperating to some degree with one another and with Hussein loyalists seeking to regain power.

In September, Bremer told reporters in Washington that 248 foreign fighters had been arrested in Iraq, including 19 suspected Al Qaeda members. It is unclear when the arrests took place.

Bin Laden, who was critical of Hussein while he was in power, has repeatedly called on Muslims to go to Iraq and avenge the U.S. invasion.

"God knows if I could find a way to your field, I wouldn't stall," a voice identified as Bin Laden's said in an audiotape released in mid-October. "You my brother fighters in Iraq ... I tell you: You are God's soldiers and the arrows of Islam, and the first line of defense for this [Muslim] nation today."

It is difficult to gauge the extent of ties between Hussein loyalists and the foreign fighters. Some officials believe that a new alliance between Al Qaeda-trained foreigners and former agents of the Mukhabarat, Hussein's intelligence service, is behind some of the terrorist attacks.

"They are now fully operational and clandestine and working with terrorist groups to start hitting targets," said Iyad Allawi, a member of the Governing Council and its security committee. "They are getting more clever, and we will see more attacks in the weeks ahead."

In the battle against the U.S. presence in Iraq, the foreign fighters bring with them experience as guerrilla warriors who are skilled in reconnaissance and mounting surprise attacks while keeping a low profile.

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