Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials say they are increasingly convinced that the man responsible for the Ashura attacks in Baghdad and Karbala is Jordanian extremist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.
General John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command and the top commander for Iraq, said yesterday in Washington that "we have intelligence" linking al-Zarqawi to the 2 March attacks. The death toll from the attacks remains unclear, with figures ranging from 117 to 271.
"We have intelligence that ties Zarqawi to this attack. We also have intelligence that shows that there is some linkage between Zarqawi and the former regime elements, specifically the Iraqi intelligence service, and we are concerned to see a terrorist group come into close coordination with former Iraqi intelligence-service people," Abizaid said.
"The important thing is, he has been in many different stations and that enables him to have this loose control or guiding force in terms of operations."
Abizaid did not detail the evidence against al-Zarqawi. But other senior U.S. military figures in Iraq have said the bombings fit the pattern of 25 previous attacks that al-Zarqawi claims to have organized or helped carry out since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in April.
U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, speaking in Baghdad yesterday, described the evidence against al-Zarqawi: "We certainly have solid evidence linking him to previous attacks in this country. The 25 attacks that he talks about, there is certainly a body of evidence that points to Zarqawi being the perpetrator of those crimes. As regards [3 March] in both Karbala and Baghdad, we are developing that body of evidence right now."
Al-Zarqawi made his claims of launching or helping to organize 25 previous attacks in a letter intercepted by U.S. forces in January. The letter, which Washington believes was written by al-Zarqawi, was addressed to Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and asked for their support in organizing further operations. U.S. officials say the letter spoke of directing attacks against Iraq's Shi'a community in an effort to provoke a sectarian conflict in the country that might help drive out the U.S.-led coalition.
Kimmitt has previously said the Ashura attacks -- which included the use of suicide bombers, hidden bombs, and mortars -- followed al-Zarqawi's pattern of favoring "spectacular" and "symbolic" actions that feature suicide bombers sacrificing themselves to attack the enemy.
Speaking to the press just hours after the bombings, Kimmitt said, "One of the chief suspects in this would be Zarqawi just [judging] by the methods that have been used in the past, just by the techniques that have been used in the past -- by the axiom of suicidal, spectacular, symbolic [attacks] -- all those would point to some sort of transnational organization, probably had some local assistance, but very, very indicative of the modus that we have seen in some of the other suicide attacks, as well."
U.S. officials caution, however, that al-Zarqawi is far from being the only organizer of attacks aimed at coalition forces or Iraqi civilians. Suspected loyalists of the deposed Hussein regime are believed to have been behind numerous attacks on coalition targets across the country. In the north of Iraq, Kurdish Islamist extremists are suspected of twin suicide bombings against the coalition-allied Kurdish administration that killed more than 100 people in February.
Still, al-Zarqawi is considered particularly dangerous because he has emerged as the best-known figure promoting "jihadist" actions in the region -- that is, operations by militant Islamist groups engaged in a "holy struggle" against the West. Counterterrorism experts describe the 37-year-old Jordanian as a "thinker" and a "good organizer" who partly trained in Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan but who has developed his own network of operatives.
In one measure of the importance Washington attaches to al-Zarqawi, the United States announced in February that it had doubled -- from $5 million to $10 million -- the reward it will pay for information leading to his death or capture.
Magnus Ranstorp is an expert on terrorist groups at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He says that al-Zarqawi "straddles multiple camps" in the militant Muslim world. He says many of those camps could be considered to be under the general umbrella of Al-Qaeda's ideology, even though they are separate from the group itself. "The important thing is, he has been in many different stations and that enables him to have this loose control or guiding force in terms of operations," Ranstorp said.
As a member of a Jordanian group opposed to that country's Western-leaning monarchy, al-Zarqawi has long been involved in struggles against the U.S. presence throughout the region. He is suspected of orchestrating the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002 and was sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court last year for plotting attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets.
The emergence of al-Zarqawi as the most prominent Islamic extremist leader in Iraq comes as U.S. intelligence officials are reported to be rethinking their tactics in the war on terrorism. Previously, they had sought to root out Al-Qaeda as a well-established and cohesive network. Those efforts began with the U.S.-led military campaign that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001.
But, as CIA Director George Tenet told a U.S. Senate panel late last month, the uprooting of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has "transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks" that "pick their own targets...[and] plan their own attacks."
That has raised the possibility of extremists like al-Zarqawi emerging as independent "jihadist" leaders who look to Al-Qaeda for inspiration and sometimes material support. These new leaders appear quite capable of continuing their fight against the United States regardless of Al-Qaeda's ultimate fate -- making the war on terrorism increasingly a multifront conflict with no end in sight.