WASHINGTON — The insistence by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and many U.S. officials that foreign fighters are streaming into Iraq to battle American troops runs counter to the U.S. military's own assessment that the Iraqi insurgency remains primarily a home-grown problem.
In a U.S. visit last week, Allawi spoke of foreign insurgents "flooding" his country, and both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, have cited these fighters as a major security problem.
But according to top U.S. military officers in Iraq, the threat posed by foreign fighters is far less significant than American and Iraqi politicians portray. Instead, commanders said, loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime -- who have swelled their ranks in recent months as ordinary Iraqis bristle at the U.S. military presence in Iraq -- represent the far greater threat to the country's fragile 3-month-old government.
Foreign militants such as Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi are believed responsible for carrying out videotaped beheadings, suicide car bombings and other high-profile attacks. But U.S. military officials said Iraqi officials tended to exaggerate the number of foreign fighters in Iraq to obscure the fact that large numbers of their countrymen have taken up arms against U.S. troops and the American-backed interim Iraqi government.
"They say these guys are flowing across [the border] and fomenting all this violence. We don't think so," said a senior military official in Baghdad. "What's the main threat? It's internal."
In interviews during his U.S. visit last week, Allawi spoke ominously of foreign jihadists "coming in the hundreds to Iraq." In one interview, he estimated that foreign fighters constituted 30% of insurgent forces.
Allawi's comments echoed a theme in Bush's recent campaign speeches: that foreign fighters streaming into the country are proof that the war in Iraq is inextricably linked to the global war on terrorism.
Kerry has made a similar case, with a different emphasis. In remarks on the stump last week, he said that the "terrorists pouring across the border" were proof that the Bush administration had turned Iraq into a magnet for foreign fighters hoping to kill Americans.
Yet top military officers challenge all these statements. In a TV interview Sunday, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, estimated that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq was below 1,000.
"While the foreign fighters in Iraq are definitely a problem that have to be dealt with, I still think that the primary problem that we're dealing with is former regime elements of the ex-Baath Party that are fighting against the government and trying to do anything possible to upend the election process," he said. Iraqi elections are scheduled for January.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Iraq's porous border -- especially its boundary with Syria -- allows arms and money to be smuggled in with relative ease. But they say the traffic from Syria is largely Iraqi Baathists who escaped after the U.S.-led invasion and couriers bringing in money from former members of Hussein's government.
At the behest of the interim government, U.S. forces last month cracked down on traffic along the 375-mile Syrian border. During Operation Phantom Linebacker, U.S. troops picked up small numbers of foreign fighters attempting to cross into Iraq, officials say.
Yet the bulk of the traffic they detected was the kind that has existed for hundreds of years: smugglers and Syrian tribesmen with close ties to sheiks on Iraq's side of the border.
Top military officers said there was little evidence that the dynamics in Iraq were similar to those in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when thousands of Arabs waged war alongside Afghans to drive out the Soviet Union.
Instead, U.S. military officials said the core of the insurgency in Iraq was -- and always had been -- Hussein's fiercest loyalists, who melted into Iraq's urban landscape when the war began in March 2003. During the succeeding months, they say, the insurgents' ranks have been bolstered by Iraqis who grew disillusioned with the U.S. failure to deliver basic services, jobs and reconstruction projects.
It is this expanding group, they say, that has given the insurgency its deadly power and which represents the biggest challenge to an Iraqi government trying to establish legitimacy countrywide.
"People try to turn this into the mujahedin, jihad war. It's not that," said one U.S. intelligence official. "How many foreign fighters have been captured and processed? Very few."