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Iraq: U.S. Wrestles With Intelligence Questions As Attacks Intensify

  • Andrew Tully

Who is responsible for the recent wave of deadly attacks in and around Baghdad? U.S. military officials in Iraq seem to be of two minds. One version largely puts the blame on former Ba'ath Party officials. Another points to foreign infiltrators.

Washington, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says he suspects foreign terrorists in Iraq are working with loyalists from the Ba'ath Party of deposed President Saddam Hussein to mount attacks on U.S. and other targets in the country.

At a White House news conference yesterday, Bush was asked who he believes is responsible for the wave of suicide attacks in and around Baghdad that killed at least 34 people this week. "We are trying to determine the nature of who these people were, but I would tell you I would assume that they are either/or and probably both Ba'athists and foreign terrorists," he answered.

Bush may have been trying to reconcile conflicting accounts from senior U.S. officials in Iraq about the presence of foreign fighters who may be taking advantage of the instability in Iraq to attack U.S. forces and other entities they regard as hostile to the Muslim world.

On 26 October, Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, commander of the U.S. 1st Armored Division in Iraq, said he was not aware of "any infusion of foreign fighters" into the country.

That assessment was reinforced on 27 October by Major General Raymond Odierno, the commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, who spoke via teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon in Washington. "We have not seen a large influx of foreign fighters thus far," he said.

At the same time, however, Dempsey's deputy, Brigadier General Mark Hertling, said in Baghdad that the 27 October suicide bombings were likely the work of what he called "foreign fighters."

But Hertling went on to say that this was not a contradiction of Dempsey's view. What it means, he said, is that until that day, there was no concrete evidence that would link any previous attacks to foreign fighters. He cited unspecified intelligence information, as well as the 27 October capture of a man carrying a Syrian passport who was trying to mount another suicide bombing in Baghdad.

In fact, there is every reason to expect the presence of foreign fighters in Iraq, whether as freelancers or as members of established terrorist organizations, according to Mark Burgess, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a private policy center in Washington.

Burgess told RFE/RL that there is no way to determine how many such fighters may be in Iraq, but he added there is no doubt that at least some are there, given the country's porous borders. He said the chaos in and around Baghdad has diverted the attention of U.S. and other coalition forces from border security.

"As things develop [in Iraq], I would be very surprised if some number of foreign fighters don't make their way to Iraq. It's too good an opportunity for them to miss, really. For them not to go there would be very remarkable, I think," he said.

Burgess said he sees no major contradiction in the statements of the generals about the extent of foreign involvement in the resistance to U.S. forces. He explained that history shows previous occupations to be equally difficult -- that it takes months, if not years, for occupiers to gain enough of the confidence of a country's residents to develop meaningful intelligence connections.

It has been less than six months since Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, Burgess said, so Americans and others should not be impatient about the U.S. military's progress since then. "American culture tends toward instant gratification," he said. "Americans have different expectations. They expect everything to be settled quickly, and of course when the media attention is on, it can concentrate people's minds in such a way that they think that this is never going to finish. You tend to have a short-term view rather than a long-term view, which is, I think, what's needed in this case."

Anna Nelson sees the U.S. intelligence situation differently. Nelson is a professor of history at American University in Washington who specializes in national security and intelligence issues. She told RFE/RL that the conflicting accounts by the generals in Iraq can mean only one thing. "I think that these two totally different conclusions come from the fact [that] they just don't know," she said.

Nelson said the Americans in charge of Iraq do not yet know how to deal with the country's long-standing culture of families and tribes. She said they are still relying on sophisticated eavesdropping, surveillance and communications devices.

"What earthly good does it do to have sophisticated intelligence?" she asked. "This is very reminiscent of the way in which we thought we could fight the Vietnam War. We had all the tanks, and we had everything lined up in the Cold War against the Russians. It didn't work in Vietnam. You couldn't use tanks. You couldn't use the kind of technology that we had at our fingertips."

Instead, the United States should be working to get a better understanding of the complex web of families and extended families in Iraq. For example, Nelson says, Saddam Hussein is probably being hidden by relatives -- even distant relatives -- who would never give him up to a foreign occupier.

Nelson said the way to find Hussein is to find the family hiding him. Yet, she said, there is no way for an outsider -- that is, a foreign spy -- to infiltrate a family in Iraq. Therefore, U.S. forces must collect intelligence by learning which families may have grudges against other families or clans.

According to Nelson, the trick at this point is to teach such clans to inform on one another, as they did under Hussein when he was in power, and as they do in other authoritarian societies. Until then, she said, U.S. forces may forever be at a loss over how to pacify Iraq.