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Jihad in Iraq By: Bradley Graham
Washington Post | Friday, August 22, 2003

The top U.S. military commander for the Persian Gulf region said yesterday that terrorism is becoming the "number one security threat" in Iraq, with foreign fighters entering the country through Syria and a revived group called Ansar al-Islam now firmly established in Baghdad.

The remarks by Army Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, added to a growing chorus by senior Bush administration officials who have begun to depict postwar Iraq as a magnet for terrorists bent on attacking the United States. "I think Iraq is at the center of the global war on terrorism," Abizaid said at a Pentagon news conference.

But while sketching the outlines of a surging terrorist campaign in Iraq, Abizaid provided little specific evidence to support his assertions of heightened activity by mounting numbers of foreign militants.

Tuesday's deadly assault on the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad and the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy earlier this month have marked the arrival of large-scale terrorist tactics in the Iraqi capital. U.S. suspicions have centered on loyalists of Saddam Hussein's government as the perpetrators of the U.N. attack, but foreign terrorists have not been ruled out, and Abizaid cited signs of growing links between the loyalists and non-Iraqi terrorists entering Iraq.

"I wouldn't say they have become allies per se, but I believe that there are some indications of cooperation in specific areas," Abizaid said. "Of course, ideologically they are not at all compatible. But, on the other hand, you sometimes cooperate against what you consider a common enemy."

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, senior Bush administration officials sought to bolster their case for war by suggesting that connections existed between Hussein's government and the al Qaeda terrorist network. The CIA found no substantive links and warned instead that a war could actually end up driving Hussein's supporters and terrorist groups together -- a prediction that Abizaid's remarks yesterday suggested may be coming true.

"Clearly, it is emerging as the number one security threat," Abizaid said of the escalation of terrorist attacks in Iraq. "And we are applying a lot of time, energy and resources to identify it, understand it and deal with it."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appeared with Abizaid, sought to portray the attacks as part of a long series of such bombings around the world. "There is hardly a month that goes by where there's not some relatively significant terrorist act that occurs somewhere," he said.

But Abizaid, making his first public remarks since Tuesday's bombing in Baghdad, offered a blunter, more ominous assessment of what he characterized as a grave new menace to the U.S.-led reconstruction effort in Iraq.

"They are clearly a problem for us because of the sophistication of their attacks and because of what I would call their tactics to go after Iraqis," he said of the terrorists. "Clearly, they're going after Iraqis that are cooperating with us. They're going after soft targets of the international community. They're still seeking to inflict casualties upon the United States."

He said the terrorist activity is being fueled by extremists operating in an area between Baghdad and the towns of Ramadi and Tikrit.

Abizaid also cited an increase in operations by Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group that Bush administration officials say has links with al Qaeda and had operated a poison laboratory at a base in northeastern Iraq. Although the base was bombed during the war, reportedly scattering the group's adherents to Iran, U.S. intelligence has since warned that the group is reconstituting in Iraq with about 150 fighters.

"We think they've migrated from the north down into Baghdad, and we think that they're established there. It's not good for us when they get established in an urban area, as you can well appreciate," Abizaid said.

Abizaid spoke of other foreign fighters infiltrating from outside Iraq. He singled out Syria as a channel, although other regional specialists have said militants also appear to be entering Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

At the same time, Abizaid said it is not clear that the foreign fighters are being sponsored by Syria or any other nation. "I don't believe that I would say that they are state-supported, but they are supported by misguided people who think that sending money to them is okay," he said.

Interjected Rumsfeld: "They clearly are not being stopped by the countries from which they're coming."

A U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that it remains unclear how many foreign fighters are crossing into Iraq, what their intentions and affiliations may be, and how organized they are. Some analysts are wondering, the official said, whether the foreigners may simply be "riffraff being attracted to chaos," rather than a coordinated resistance. Other officials have said the militants include Syrians, Saudis, Jordanians, Lebanese, Algerians and Yemenis, among others.

At the United Nations yesterday, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said intelligence reports show that the truck used in the bombing of the U.N. headquarters came from Syria, although he added that he had no evidence linking Syria directly to the attack, which killed at least 23 people and injured more than 100. Syria's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Fayssal Mekdad, called the statement "an absolutely crazy allegation."

A previously unknown group calling itself the Armed Vanguards of the Second Army of Mohammed claimed responsibility yesterday for the U.N. bombing. It sent a two-page typewritten statement to the Associated Press and an Arab broadcast station, Al-Arabiya. The statement pledged "to continue fighting every foreigner [in Iraq] and to carry out similar operations." It also threatened U.S. forces -- and Arabs and Muslims who aid them -- and warned Arab countries against sending troops to Iraq to serve in an international peacekeeping force.

Several self-proclaimed fighting forces have appeared in the Arab media in recent months, proclaiming responsibility for attacks in Iraq. While the validity of these and yesterday's claims could not be verified, they pointed to the fierce, smoldering emotions feeding the attacks.

Abizaid said defeating the terrorists should not require increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Instead, he argued for intensifying efforts to develop new Iraqi security forces and to expand the ranks of peacekeeping forces from other countries. His prescription echoed the strategy outlined earlier in the week by administration officials.

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