18, 2003

Iraqi resistance: Who’s behind it?

By Paul Haven
Associated Press


BAGHDAD, Iraq — The attacks are coming every two hours now: A soldier shot in the head browsing at a Baghdad shop, a convoy ambushed with rocket propelled grenades on a darkened street, surface-to-air missiles fired at military planes.
As casualties are mounting in Iraq, so are questions about who is behind the resistance. More than 30 servicemen were killed in hostile action since May 1, the day President Bush declared an end to major fighting, and the military says its forces are coming under fire an average of 12 times a day.

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, insists the attacks are not coordinated by any central command and has described the perpetrators as “dead-enders” — Saddam Hussein loyalists from his feared Fedayeen paramilitary force, and intelligence units left out in the cold since the U.S. ousted their benefactor in April.

Others are not so sure.

The U.S. takeover has turned Iraq’s political reality on its head — many Iraqi Sunni Muslims are angry over the increased powers of the nation’s Shiite majority, which holds the deciding votes on a new Governing Council and is set to assume a prominent national role for the first time in Iraq’s history. Even those happy to see Saddam go are not so happy with what they see taking his place.

Those sentiments were on display Thursday in Fallujah, a town in the “Sunni Triangle” where many are still loyal to Saddam. About 100 people marked the day, the anniversary of the 1968 revolution of Saddam’s Baath party, by chanting “Saddam, we’ll sacrifice our blood and soul for you.”

Saddam loyalists have also distributed leaflets in the capital urging their countrymen not to cooperate with the Americans, and warning that those who do will be regarded as traitors. And a voice purported to be Saddam himself has issued audiotaped warnings, the latest on Thursday, calling for holy war against U.S. occupiers.

Also Thursday, American forces found a cache of about 4 tons of military explosives in central Iraq, a senior official at the Pentagon said. Troops found the stash of C-4 explosives about 30 miles southwest of Baghdad after being tipped by Iraqis, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There is also evidence that non-Iraqi Islamic militant groups with at least a philosophical connection to al-Qaida may be involved in some attacks, according to Gen. John Abizaid, the newly appointed head of U.S. Central Command.

“I don’t know that I would say that Osama bin Laden has made an order that has been conveyed to people that has caused them to move into Iraq to kill us,” Abizaid said at his first briefing since taking command. “But I do know that there are those who would sympathize with him that have moved into Iraq and are trying to kill us.”

Several shadowy groups have popped up in recent weeks to claim responsibility for attacks.

One, calling itself the “Islamic Armed Group of al-Qaida, Fallujah branch,” went on Arab television channels Sunday night to claim that it, not Saddam, was behind the recent bloodshed. It was the first time a group purporting to be linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network has claimed responsibility for attacks in Iraq.

“By God, not one of [Saddam’s] followers carried out any of the Jihadi (holy war) operations like he claims,” said an unidentified man dressed in a clerical robe and white turban, adding “our Mujahedeen brothers” are behind the attacks instead.

Another group, this one called “Wakefulness and Holy War,” said it carried out attacks in Fallujah, where tension has been high since U.S. soldiers shot and killed 20 Iraqi protesters in April. “Saddam and America are two faces of the same coin,” the group said.

Then on Tuesday, an organization called “Liberating Iraq’s Army” went on Arabiya television to promise retribution for any country that sends peacekeeping troops. In a letter addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the group said peacekeepers would be attacked even if they are sent under a U.N. mandate and wearing the world body’s traditional blue helmets. The same group claimed responsibility in leaflets for the assassination on Wednesday of the U.S.-appointed mayor of Hadithah, in western Iraq.

Other terrorist groups operating inside Iraq include Ansar Islam, an al-Qaida-linked organization whose camp in northern Iraq suffered devastating attacks from U.S. forces in the early stages of the war. Ansar Islam appears to be regrouping in Iraq, possibly buoyed by members coming from Iran or from elsewhere after fleeing during the fighting, Abizaid said.

But Abizaid said the “primary threat,” is still from midlevel Baath party operatives loyal to Saddam.

Thousands of Arab fighters poured into the country in the run-up to the war, amid calls by radical groups to fight the Americans. Others may have slipped in more recently.

“The way the borders are, it may be possible,” said a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said attacks have become more “sophisticated” in recent weeks, a sign of at least some form of coordination.

Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt’s Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he doubted al-Qaida was behind the daily mortar and shooting attacks, but he said they might be in the planning stages of a larger-scale strike on U.S. forces in Iraq.

“They don’t do small strikes,” he said.

Whomever is behind the attacks, coalition officials say they won’t deter the U.S. mission here.

Bernard Kerik, a former New York police chief who is now overseeing Iraq’s Interior Ministry, said only a small number of those arrested by the coalition have been foreigners, and he said no link to al-Qaida has been established.

“Nobody has been identified as al-Qaida yet. Could they be out there? It’s possible,” he said. “The bottom line is, I don’t care if they are al-Qaida, I don’t care if they are Fedayeen, I don’t care if they are Baathists. I don’t care who the hell they are. If they attack the coalition or they attack the police, they are going to be arrested or they are going to be killed.”




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Copyright 2003 The Associated Press


Sempers,

Roger