In Iraq, US sees influence of Al Qaeda

Officials say 'foreign fighters' may be plotting attacks against US forces.

A car bomb in Baghdad last week killed 19 people - the deadliest single act of violence since the US occupation began 100 days ago. None of the victims was American, but the attack suggested that US forces may soon face a more sophisticated and unpredictable enemy than they have encountered so far.

In recent weeks and days, US military and civilian officials and some of their Iraqi supporters have said that "foreign fighters" and a largely Kurdish organization that the US believes has ties to Al Qaeda may be plotting attacks against US forces in Iraq.

The US battled Iraq's regime as part of its "war on terrorism," despite little evidence of any link between the former Iraqi government and those who attacked the US on Sept. 11, 2001. Now that US forces are occupying Iraq, the war on terrorism seems to be coming to them.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US ground forces in Iraq, told reporters last week that a connection between the foreign fighters and Al Qaeda was "clearly a possibility."

L. Paul Bremer, the top US civilian administrator here, has warned in recent days that Ansar al Islam, a primarily Kurdish group whose name translates to "partisans of Islam," may be preparing attacks against US targets. In late March, the US attacked Ansar al Islam's enclave in a part of northeastern Iraq administered by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

At the time, US and PUK officials claimed near-total success in eradicating the group, which had conducted terrorist assaults against Kurdish leaders in its attempt to bring an Islamist government to the area. Earlier this year, Kurdish officials estimated that Ansar al Islam had 700 fighters, including an unknown number from other countries in the Middle East.

The US hit the enclave with cruise missiles and bombs; US Special Forces coordinated a ground assault by PUK troops. The attack killed scores of Ansar al-Islam fighters, PUK officials said at the time. Those who escaped death or capture have apparently regrouped.

Following the trail

"According to information from our security apparatus, they have moved to other parts of Iraq, including Baghdad and Falujah," says a senior Kurdish official in Sulaymaniyah, which serves as the capital of the PUK region. Falujah has seen some of the most strenuous resistance to the US military presence in Iraq. Since President Bush declared the combat phase of the war over on May 1, 119 US service personnel have died in Iraq.

After the car bomb exploded Thursday in front of the embassy of Jordan, regarded as a US ally, US officials immediately fingered Ansar al Islam, albeit not definitively.

"The one organization that we have confidence and that we know is in Iraq and in the Baghdad area is Ansar al Islam," Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington. "It is unknown whether this particular organization was associated with the [bombing]. Perhaps that'll become clear as we go down the road."

The hand of Al Qaeda?

A White House document released on Friday, "Results in Iraq: 100 Days Toward Security and Freedom," describes Ansar al-Islam as an Al Qaeda "affiliate." The document also says that "senior al Qaida associate" Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam together established facilities in northern Iraq that "were, before the war, an al Qaida's poisons/toxins laboratory."

US officials and their backers in Iraq are also asserting that militants who practice the Wahhabi version of Islam are engineering attacks against American forces.

Mudhar Showkat, a senior official of the Iraqi National Congress, which campaigned for years for US intervention in Iraq, says that "Wahhabis" top his list of those responsible for anti-US attacks.

The other responsible parties on Mr. Showkat's list are "past Baathist thugs," a reference to Iraq's deposed Baath Party, and Shiite Muslims in Iraq supported by Iran.

The Wahhabis "are very dangerous, much more than the Baathists. These people would die for a cause," he says. "Most of their funds come from Saudi Arabia - not necessarily the government."

Wahhabism is Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's brand of Islam, but Showkat can only infer a connection between the Iraqi Wahhabis and Al Qaeda. "If they are committing terrorist acts, they must be Al Qaeda or must be linked to Al Qaeda, but I cannot tell you that with confidence."

Investigating the attacks

Indeed, there remains a great deal of confusion over who is responsible for the anti-US violence. General Sanchez, at his briefing last week, refused to answer questions about what the US had learned about the source of the attacks from the many detainees US troops have captured in scores of recent raids.

The pan-Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya last week aired a video depicting five men with scarves around their faces calling for attacks against the Americans to free the country from occupation. They claimed to represent three unknown groups: White Flags, Muslim Youth, and the Army of Muhammad.

What is less disputable is that the American presence has given Iraqis plenty of grievances: It is not yet clear when the US will leave or what sort of government it will leave behind and, in the meantime, Iraqis are feeling underserved and insecure.

On his way into Friday prayers at a Baghdad mosque this past weekend, a gray-bearded man who said he holds a PhD but who declined to give his name offered this reflection on the US presence: "The Americans came to destroy the country, not to liberate it. If they don't leave peacefully, we will force them to leave."

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