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.
"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.
• The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, responsible for numerous suicide bombings in Israel, on Sunday said that it had sent a first wave of suicide bombers to help Iraq fight US and British forces.
• One young man from Saudi Arabia posted a letter on the "Yahoo" website Monday titled: "How to get to Iraq for jihad." It goes onto say: "Iraq today faces a savage war by Anglo-American crusaders, which opens wide the door for jihad." The writer adds that it was his own mother who encouraged him to join the fight in Iraq, also detailing his warm reception by the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, Jordan, and his trip into Iraq, apparently before the start of the US ground campaign.
• In Egypt, moderate Islamic scholars at Cairo's Al Azhar University have repeated their calls for a "jihad," or struggle against the US invaders of Iraq. Dr. Ibrahim Sheikh Muallah, the chief cleric of the Al Ahzar Mosque said recently: "George Bush is destroying our values, our principles, and our freedom. He uses his power without reason."
Dr. Gunaratna says that any influx of foreign fighters, which he estimates could be in the low thousands, is coming from Iraq's immediate neighbors, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, but that this could soon change as more Islamic groups mobilize fighters. "I think that it won't be long until we see holy warriors converging on Iraq from Africa, Asia, and Europe as well," he says.
In Indonesia, a group known as the "Islamic Defenders Front" claimed to have registered some 400 fresh volunteers to fight in Iraq last week in front of the US Embassy in Jakarta. Such "jihad registrations" have become a part of the political street theater whenever there's a major war between a largely Muslim and a largely non-Muslim state. Indonesians signed up to go to Bosnia in the early 1990s, to help oust India from Kashmir a few years ago, and to repel the US from Afghanistan last year. In all these cases, diplomats who track the matter say, few volunteers actually went.
One would-be martyr, who didn't want to give his name, was adamant at an anti-US rally in Jakarta last week that he was "ready to be a martyr." But asked when he was leaving, he was less certain. "I'm really hoping Iraq sends the money so I can get there."
As many as 1,000 Indonesians participated in the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s and, later, in the civil war won by the Taliban. But they got there via traditional links between Indonesian religious teachers and the madrassahs of Pakistan.
Monday, US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks was asked about reports that 4,000 suicide volunteers had entered Iraq from other Arab countries. He said US Special Forces were operating in the western part of the country to prevent the infiltration of such fighters.
This weekend, four members of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division were killed when a taxi drove up to an Army checkpoint north of the Iraqi city of Najaf and exploded after the driver waved for help. It was the first suicide attack since the US-led invasion began. Iraqi officials said that the attack was done by one of their own Army officers.
The Australian naval vessels patrolling the Persian Gulf are also on high alert for suicide attacks. Last week, Iranian gunboats intercepted an Iraqi speedboat packed with explosives at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab River.