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THE WORLD

Iraqi Guerrilla Gives U.S. a Dire Warning

Thousands are ready to die to evict Americans and return Hussein, he says. Kidnapping of troops is threatened.

October 07, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — "Commander A," a hawk-nosed, stubble-bearded former Iraqi intelligence officer who says he leads anti-American guerrillas in this area, sat in a car on a deserted country road screened by seven-foot reeds Monday and laid out his vision for driving U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Slowly, he said, the "resistance" has been building its strength, accumulating stores of weapons and collecting money from residents. Former supporters of Saddam Hussein and observant Muslims alike are rallying to the cause, he asserted. Thousands are willing to die to evict U.S. forces from the country, and attacks are now being centrally coordinated, he said.

"The American Army will feel that Vietnam was just a playground by comparison," the self-proclaimed leader of Serayeh al Jihad -- the "Companies of Jihad" -- said. At one point his deputy flinched when two U.S. helicopters passed overhead.

The man who gave his name as Commander A and the deputy who called himself Commander B agreed to meet with an American journalist and discuss their activities, offering a rare glimpse of what may be the thinking behind the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq.

The clandestine meeting was brokered by an Iraqi journalist from Fallouja who has covered the resistance for Arab television networks and worked in the Hussein-era Information Ministry. Although the two reputed resistance fighters were boastful and prone to exaggerated assertions of their effectiveness, their knowledge of recent operations, their wariness and their connections to Hussein's intelligence service lent some credence to their claims.

They said that the guerrillas are preparing to expand beyond the so-called "Sunni triangle"; that their group aims to abduct U.S. servicemen and give them to Osama bin Laden to barter for the Al Qaeda prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and that they are starting to develop into a full-fledged underground army that could take over as soon as they drive U.S. forces from Iraq.

In line with the U.S. assessments that the resistance is mainly made up of former regime loyalists, both men were security officers under the Baathist government and said they want to restore Hussein to power.

At the same time, they said, they have now embraced the call for a holy war against the United States espoused by groups such as Al Qaeda, and they also consider themselves fighting for Islam as well as for their country and Hussein. "And our symbol will be the virtuous sheik, Osama bin Laden," Commander A declared.

The Iraqi journalist who brokered the meeting -- and whose sympathies lie with the resistance -- said the two men led a cell of about 25 fighters that had been attacking the U.S. Army with roadside bombs and ambushes.

Attacks Increasing

Although U.S. officials have played down the military significance of the guerrilla activity, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, acknowledged last week that attacks are becoming more frequent and are showing greater sophistication.

U.S. intelligence sees little evidence that the disparate opposition forces are coalescing around a common Islamist agenda or leadership structure, but officials do not rule out the possibility of some limited coordination.

"There may be limited cooperation in some instances in terms of carrying out attacks, although there certainly isn't definitive evidence pointing in that direction," a U.S. official said Monday in Washington. "They do have some ideological differences. But one of the reasons that would cause them to cooperate to some extent is mutual hatred of the United States and interest in trying to get the U.S. out of Iraq."

Since the war began March 20, 320 Americans have died and about 1,300 have been wounded. More than 80 combat deaths have occurred since President Bush declared major combat over May 1, mostly through roadside bombings and grenade and small-arms attacks.

Fallouja has been one of the main centers of the insurgency that began to emerge in late May. Attacks in and around the city west of Baghdad recently have been occurring about 20 times a day, the U.S. military says.

On the highway from Baghdad to Fallouja on Monday morning, U.S. troops were diverting traffic briefly onto an overpass. "Bomb," a U.S. soldier called out in explanation as cars slowed down.

Both reputed guerrilla fighters, who did not give their ages but appeared to be in their 40s, presented themselves as major figures in the fighting in the Fallouja area. Their activities include recruiting and directing fighters, taking part in "operations" that have killed Americans and coordinating with fighters in other areas, they said.

Both had worked before the war for the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the Mukhabarat, and said they regarded the guerrilla war as the continuation of the war begun in March.

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