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Iraq: U.S. Officials Believe Terrorism Could Escalate

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. officials are warning that large-scale terrorist attacks on coalition forces and other targets in Iraq could increase in the wake of the car bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad last week. Washington says foreign terrorists are increasingly filtering into the country, including anti-U.S. Islamic militants who left Iraq during the war. RFE/RL looks at why many U.S. officials now think terrorism in Iraq is about to escalate.

Prague, 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Before last week's (7 August) car bombing outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, U.S. officials saw the biggest security threat in Iraq coming from Saddam Hussein loyalists.

But since the attack, which killed at least 17 people, Washington has increasingly begun to speak of threats from a wide spectrum of anti-U.S. forces, including what it refers to as "foreign terrorists."

U.S. President George W. Bush alluded to the foreign terrorists in his weekly radio speech to the U.S. public over the weekend: "Every day, we are working to make Iraq more secure. Coalition forces remain on the offensive against the Ba'ath Party loyalists and foreign terrorists who are trying to prevent order and stability. More and more Iraqis are coming forward with specific information as to the whereabouts of these violent thugs, enabling us to carry out raids to round them up and seize stockpiles of weapons."

He did not spell out who the foreign terrorists are. But other U.S. officials say Washington is talking about an array of Islamic militants who belong to different groups that closely resemble -- and may have links to -- Al-Qaeda.

One group whose name has frequently come up is Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group composed mostly of Iraqi Kurds but which also includes Afghans and Arabs. The group carved out a small enclave in northern Iraq and waged a running battle for territory with one of Iraq's two main Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), before it was forced out by PUK fighters and U.S. air strikes in March. Survivors of the group -- whose top leaders fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and are suspected of close contacts with Al-Qaeda -- fled into Iran.

The top U.S. administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, said late last week that fighters from Ansar al-Islam are now slipping back across the border into Iraq and preparing to attack occupying military forces, as well as targets associated with the U.S.-led administration. Speaking a day after the embassy car bombing, Bremer suggested Ansar al-Islam could have been behind the attack -- the first major strike against a civilian, or "soft," target rather than against coalition forces.

"The New York Times" quoted Bremer as saying: "Intelligence suggests that Ansar al-Islam is planning large-scale terrorist attacks here. So long as we have, as I think we do, substantial numbers of Ansar terrorists around here, I think we have to be pretty alert to the fact that we may see more of this."

But Bremer has not limited the possible suspects in the embassy bombing to Ansar al-Islam alone. Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad over the weekend, he said Ansar al-Islam is high on a list that also includes former Ba'athists. "We know we have a terrorist threat in this country, I have spoken in this room before about it. Among the terrorist groups we are concerned about, Ansar al-Islam is certainly high on the list," Bremer said.

He continued: "We have other terrorists in this country as we have found from our military operations, our interrogations, and our intelligence. But it is also possible that some of the groups which have been responsible for the attacks against the coalition forces, some of the Fedayeen Saddam, elements of the former intelligence services, some of the Ba'athists who are not accepting the new Iraq, it is possible that some of them could have conducted this kind of an attack."

One reason Bremer said Ansar al-Islam is a prime suspect in the embassy bombing is that they have a history of doing "big stuff. They don't do chicken-feed-type stuff," by carrying out small or unsophisticated attacks.

Bremer, who served as the chief counterterrorism official at the State Department during the Reagan administration, was apparently referring to Ansar al-Islam's periodic use of suicide bombings in assassination attempts on PUK officials. The group is also suspected of being behind a suicide car bombing in northern Iraq during the war, which killed four Kurds and an Australian journalist near the town of Halabjah.

U.S. officials have not said Ansar al-Islam is joining forces with Hussein loyalists as it returns to Iraq. But Washington has in the past said there is evidence of links between Baghdad and Ansar al-Islam and Al-Qaeda.

In helping make Washington's case for the Iraq war, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council in February that an agent of Hussein's regime was working for Ansar al-Islam and that this agent had offered safe haven to some Al-Qaeda operatives in the region. That testimony has since been hotly debated, with a UN terrorism committee concluding two months ago that it could find no evidence of links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda.

As U.S. officials have warned of Ansar al-Islam's return, they also say foreign militants belonging to other groups are infiltrating the country.

U.S. forces recently apprehended some 40 suspected foreign militants near the Syrian border and are now interrogating them. The U.S. bombed a military camp near the Syrian border in June, killing some 70 men in a strike that officials said was aimed at fighters from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen with Al-Qaeda-like methods of operation.

The infiltration of Islamic militants into Iraq is worrisome for the coalition because it suggests terrorist attacks in the country could continue even if U.S. forces succeed in quelling the almost daily guerrilla attacks by suspected Hussein loyalists.

The U.S. administration has frequently said it hopes the killing or capture of Saddam Hussein will end any hopes among his supporters of wresting back power from the occupation authorities. Washington considered last month's killing of Saddam's two sons -- his one-time heirs apparent -- a major victory for just that reason.

But some analysts say the Islamic militants now entering the fray have a much broader goal not likely to be affected by the deaths of top regime members -- that is, to strike back at America for its presence in the Middle East and its perceived domination of a Muslim country.

"The Boston Globe" this week quoted Vincent Cannistrara, a former counterterrorism chief for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as saying the presence of Islamic militants groups is "going to be a continuing source of instability" in Iraq. "Even if we catch Saddam tomorrow, that doesn't mean resistance is going to go away," Cannistrara said.