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Iraq: Speculation Mounts Over UN Blast, But Hard Evidence Is Scarce

  • Charles Recknagel

No one has claimed responsibility for bombing the UN's Baghdad headquarters, and so far no evidence has emerged as to the culprits' identity. But that has not stopped a firestorm of media speculation, with some commentators pinning the blame squarely on Islamic militants but others seeing the hand of Saddam Hussein.

Prague, 21 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. investigators in Iraq are putting together the first picture of how the 19 August bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad was carried out. But they are still no closer to establishing who was behind it.

Thomas Fuentes, a top agent in Iraq for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), told reporters yesterday that the bombers used a KamAZ flatbed truck loaded with a 225-kilogram Soviet-made aerial bomb -- plus up to 500 kilograms of mortar shells, hand grenades, and other munitions.

The investigator said that early indications suggest the attack was a suicide bombing because it appears the driver did not leave the scene before the blast took place.

"This vehicle was driven along the side of the wall that's adjacent to the former hotel and United Nations office and was detonated," Fuentes said. "We believe it's possibly a suicide bombing because, in the wreckage, we have human remains also strewn about the scene. We have recovered them and we are in the process of analyzing those parts."

Fuentes said that forensic evidence from the blast site will be sent to FBI laboratories in Washington, D.C., within days. Such evidence could establish more clearly whether the bomb was detonated by the driver or by remote control -- possibly even without the driver's knowledge.

As the investigators begin the laborious task of analyzing the data from the bombing site, U.S. officials in Baghdad have said they are leaving all possibilities open as to who engineered the attack.

Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner now in charge of reconstituting Iraq's police force, said it is too early to blame any one party. Answering reporters' questions as to whether he thought Islamic militants were responsible -- particularly Ansar al Islam, a group formerly based in northern Iraq with suspected Al-Qaeda connections -- he said yesterday he would not focus on them alone.

Kerik said: "I will not rule out the fact that it could be local former regime members such as the Mukhabarat [intelligence police], Saddam loyalists, or the former Iraqi military."

But if investigators are cautious in approaching the question of who is responsible, there is no shortage of media speculation as to where they should look first.

The U.S. daily "The New York Times," reporting today on the FBI's early findings, said that some U.S. officials suspect loyalists of the regime because the munitions used in the blast would previously have been in the hands of Hussein's military.

The paper quoted one unidentified official as saying he doubted that foreign militants infiltrating into the country were responsible. He said: "I don't feel they have the [organizational] capacity right now" for such attacks.

U.S. civil administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer said yesterday more than 100 foreign fighters sympathetic to Al-Qaeda have crossed into Iraq since the start of the American occupation, using travel documents from countries such as Syria, Sudan, and Yemen.

Meanwhile, two members of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council have said that they suspect Islamic militants, but have not specified which groups.

Jalal Talabani, head of one of the two main Iraqi-Kurd factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said while visiting Australia today that "these terrorist activities in Iraq are arranged by fundamentalist Muslim, or so-called Muslim, organizations."

Ahmad Chalabi, a leader of the former exile Iraqi National Congress, said in Baghdad he passed intelligence to the Americans earlier this month indicating an Islamic militant group had discussed the possible truck-bombing of targets, including the UN. He also charged that Islamic militants are making alliances with pro-Hussein guerrillas to assist each others' operations.

As the speculation mounts over who is responsible, much of the argument hinges upon whether the truck was driven by a suicide bomber or not. That is because many observers see suicide bombing as a modus operandi of Islamic militant groups but not of former Iraqi military men loyal to Hussein.

Tim Garden, a regional expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, says that carrying out a suicide bombing requires finding someone who is fully prepared to die in the attempt, and that usually means someone with strong religious convictions.

"A successful suicide mission requires a high degree of assurance that the suicide person is going to carry it through," Garden said. "And that does require somebody who is motivated by something rather more than just the normal national loyalties that one thinks of in terms of military people."

But some observers say that Hussein loyalists -- particularly members of the Fedayeen, a former elite force sworn to fight to the death for the regime -- also could be sufficiently motivated for suicide missions against their enemies. They point to the recent March-April war for evidence.

During the war, many of the most persistent attacks on advancing U.S. armor columns came from men dressed in civilian clothes and armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers or assault rifles. Approaching aboard pick-up trucks or sometimes motorcycles, the were killed by the heavy weapons of the armored columns long before they themselves came within range to fire. U.S. soldiers viewed the attackers as "kamikazes" -- a term used to describe suicide attackers.

At the same time, several U.S. soldiers were killed during the war by car-bomb attacks on checkpoints. In the first such attack, a taxi exploded, killing four American troops outside of Al-Najaf. A top regime official, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, praised that attack the following day, saying: "I'm sure that the day will come when a single martyrdom operation will kill 5,000 enemies." (Ramadan was captured by Kurdish forces in Mosul this week and handed over to the coalition.)

But there are divided opinions over whether these wartime suicide attacks were, in fact, the work of Iraqi military men or instead carried out by the foreign militants who streamed into Iraq at the last minute to fight the invasion.

Phillip Mitchell, a ground forces specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says that Iraqis do not have a history of suicide attacks.

"I don't think the Iraqis have a history of that type of warfare," Mitchell said. "It may well have been that some of the more extreme acts were carried out by the loyalists to Saddam, those cars driving hell-bent at the U.S. forces, but I think the [car-bomb] suicide missions looks more like the outside militants and fanatic Islamists."

Mitchell says that until the difficult question of just who is behind the use of suicide attacks in Iraq is answered, coalition forces are going to have a hard time stamping out the practice.

Analysts say the U.S. and British military will need to obtain far better intelligence than they have now if they are to identify the organizers of the attacks. But some of the best information will only come from analysis of the clues the bombers leave behind. With investigators now working with evidence from just two bombings -- of the Jordanian Embassy earlier this month and now the UN -- the race to stop the bombers before they strike again may have only now begun.