U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ trying to lock down security in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle" are battling enemies beyond disgruntled Baathist and unemployed Fedayeen. The triangle--the region around Baghdad and west to Ramadhi, then north to Saddam Hussein's ancestral hometown of Tikrit (and sometimes as far north as Mosul)--has become a hotbed for foreign fighters eager to spill American blood.
President Bush stated in a September 7 speech to the nation that Iraq has become the central front in the war on terrorism and that terrorists aligned with Osama bin Laden and others like al Qaeda have crossed Iraq's borders.
Paul Bremer, the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority that oversees reconstruction in Iraq, buttressed Bush's claims, saying at a September 26 Pentagon briefing that "we do have almost 300 foreign--non-Iraqi detainees--third-country nationals in detention now, some of whom are terrorists, some of whom maybe just came as mercenaries."
While the influence of foreign fighters has become a problem during America's occupation of Iraq, it's not a new one. One of the Bush team's arguments for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was the presence of the Ansar al Islam group, who dominated a region in northeastern Iraq near the town of Halabja, by the Iranian border. And Ansar was a problem. During the war, teams from the 3rd Army Special Forces group fought pitched battles against Ansar, destroying their terrorist training camp after four days of fighting.
But this wasn't the only group of terrorists lurking in Iraq. From early April until mid-May, coalition special operations forces operated out of a compound called H-1 on the grounds of a captured Iraqi air base in western Iraq. The base was captured early in the war by Army Rangers who parachuted onto its runways and wiped out Iraqi resistance. Once secured, the commandos swept in and turned the base into an outpost, using H-1 as a resupply point and staging a quick reaction force there to fly in and pull the commando teams out of a pinch if things got too hot.
They also turned H-1 into a POW camp. For one month, commando teams from the 5th Special Forces group, British and Australian Special Air Service, and CIA special tactics teams went out on raids designed to capture high-value human targets in the western desert along Highway12, the main road between Baghdad and Syria. And they didn't come back empty handed. According to Army soldiers who administered the camp for the commandos, the prison held as many as 250 captives--nearly all of them foreign terrorists. They came from Iran, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries and hailed from groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. The soldiers even reported capturing al Qaeda members.
INITIALLY, some observers believed that the H-1 soldiers were mistaking Ansar captives for al Qaeda. But at the September 26 briefing, Bremer, for the first time, revealed that American forces had indeed captured "two dozen" al Qaeda in Iraq.
During their detention at H-1, these prisoners were interrogated by Defense Intelligence Agency operatives and then shipped out of the country (via Saudi Arabia) to either Kuwait or Guantanamo Bay for further questioning.
The ties between Saddam and terrorist groups can be seen all over Iraq. One camp used by soldiers outside the northern city of Balad displays Iraqi and Palestinian flags side by side in the arched entrance. Inside the barracks-like buildings, Arabic writing on the walls teaches would-be terrorists how to aim rockets at tanks and implores them to kill infidels. This one-time training camp is set up just yards from one of the town's biggest Sunni mosques.
Evidence that Iraq is the central battleground in the war on terrorism is beginning to trickle out, with reports of increased infiltration along the Syrian border and a surge in activity from a reconstituted Ansar al Islam. But many of these groups were already well established in Iraq before the war.
Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. He spent six weeks on assignment in Iraq this summer.