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A broad call for 'martyrs' for Iraq

Arab recruits willing to die for Iraq were shown on Iraqi television Monday.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor, Special to The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2003


Islamic leaders, websites, and moderate newspapers across the Middle East are carrying fresh calls for a jihad - and suicide "martyrs" - that could reinforce President Saddam Hussein's plans for a guerrilla war of attrition, say military and counterterrorism experts.

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"Hussein has been hoping to make suicide attackers an integral part of his defense since at least the middle of last year," according to an Iraqi government defector interview by the CIA.

Analysts expected it to be difficult for Mr. Hussein to find Muslims willing to die for his regime. While a volunteer might be willing to sacrifice his life in the belief it would earn him entrance to heaven, it seemed unlikely that he would do the same for a regime considered secular and largely corrupt.

But what experts find disturbing is that the US invasion is winning Hussien - or at least the Iraqi people - the kind of support among Islamic groups that has, until now, largely eluded him. Volunteers are willing to die for fellow Muslims. Experts are currently seeing a broad-based call across the Islamic world to fight against US-led "aggression" in Iraq.

"I think the administration in Washington made a strategic miscalculation, not understanding that the fight in Iraq will be a protracted conflict but also underestimating the amount of militant opposition coming from outside the country," says Rohan Gunaratna, the author of the book, "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror."

Still, it is not clear that reports of Arabs and Muslims volunteering to be suicide bombers or "martyrs" for the Iraqi cause will materialize as a threat on the battlefield. "Poorer Islamic countries might not be able to field as many fighters as they sign up simply because the basic code for jihad has been that if you are going to fight, you have to pay for your trip with your own money," says Dr. Gunaratna, who is currently based in Singapore.

Nonetheless, some counterterrorism experts are warning that if the Iraq war is prolonged, it will bring together disparate militant groups - including Al Qaeda - with the common aim to stop what is perceived as US aggression in a Muslim nation.

Among the warning signs:

• On Sunday, Iraqi Gen. Hazem al-Rawi claimed that some 4,000 volunteers from 23 Arab countries have already entered his country and were preparing for suicide attacks. Iraqi television Monday interviewed a handful of men who said they were from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Azziz, a Christian, also said yesterday that Muslims from across the world were lining up to serve as "martyrs" to stop what he called "Imperialist American aggression." He denied that the fighters were "terrorists," referring to them as "heroes" and "freedom fighters."

• In early March, Iraq opened a training camp for Arab volunteers willing to carry out suicide bombings against US forces in case they invade Iraq, Arab media and Iraqi dissidents told Associated Press last month. The dissidents in Jordan, said scores of Arab volunteers had gone to a special camp run by the Iraqi intelligence service near the town of al-Khalis, 40 miles north of Baghdad.