The Washington Times

With Iraqis helping out U.S. troops, looting sees start of 'downward trend'

April 15, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01


Conventional military conflict in Iraq is nearly over, but thousands of foreign fighters and supporters of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein remain in the country and pose a danger to U.S. and allied forces, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The allies have discovered that Iraq was training or harboring guerrillas from North Africa and throughout the Middle East.

Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations for the U.S. Central Command, said the foreign guerrillas are "still threats" even though organized fighting by the Iraqi military has all but stopped.

"Even though there's not organized regime resistance, there are individuals who may be willing to carry on acts of violence and acts of terrorism without regard to any ideology or any national cause," Gen. Brooks said in Qatar.

Gen. Brooks said coalition forces are "not just waiting to be attacked" by the foreign irregulars, but are tracking down and eliminating them with the help of liberated Iraqis.

The guerrillas that have been found are "well-armed," Gen. Brooks said.

The discovery last weekend of hundreds of bomb-laden leather jackets has raised fears of more suicide attacks against coalition troops.

At least 80 of the 300 jackets, each of which was lined with several pounds of C-4 plastic high explosive laced with ball bearings, are missing from the elementary school near Baghdad where they were found.

"We think that some of the explosive vests were meant for" the foreign fighters, he said.

The guerrilla fighters are a mixture of untrained Islamist and Arab supporters and others who have military or terrorist training, according to defense and intelligence officials.

Documents obtained from dead and captured fighters show the foreigners included Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Moroccans, Saudis, Yemenis and other Arabs.

Intelligence reports also indicate that al Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists remain in Iraq and are a threat to coalition forces.

More than 100 al Qaeda terrorists are believed to have been in Iraq before the start of the war, the official said.

As for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group based in Lebanon, the exact number of fighters in Iraq is not known, the official said.

"These guys still pose a threat. They are irregular forces," the official said.

Coalition forces believe the guerrillas are prepared to carry out car bombings, suicide bombings, and ambushes of troops and sniper attacks, as well as hit-and-run shootings and grenade strikes.

One example of the guerrilla threat took place Sunday night, when Marines exchanged fire with snipers in Baghdad near the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign news reporters are based.

The Marines arrested three armed men. No Marines were injured.

The official said there are no solid estimates of how many foreign guerrillas and terrorists are in Iraq. "Rather than hundreds, it could be in the thousands," the official said.

The military experience of the fighters also varies widely. "Some of them have not received training at all, and some likely have fought before," the official said.

U.S. officials said nearly two dozen foreign terror suspects believed to be linked to al Qaeda were killed at a training camp belonging to the group Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq.

The camp was attacked by coalition air strikes, U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish fighters April 3 near the town of Uraman, in Iraq's northeastern Sulaymaniyah province.

Among the foreign nationals found at the camp were Saudis, Afghans, Moroccans and Algerians who were identified by travel papers, the officials said.

Other foreign guerrillas are predominantly radical Islamist supporters of Saddam who volunteered to go to Iraq in the weeks before the war to oppose U.S. and British forces, the officials said.

Several hundred of the fighters came from Syria and included both Syrians and Palestinians, the officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that Syria's government has permitted the guerrilla volunteers to go into Iraq.

"We have intelligence that shows that Syria has allowed Syrians and others to come across the border into Iraq, people armed and people carrying leaflets indicating that they'll be rewarded if they kill Americans and members of the coalition," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters outside the Pentagon.

Gen. Brooks said the military is making progress against the guerrillas in Baghdad.

"We don't have a good number as to how many there are, but we do know that they don't have a place in the future of Iraq," Gen. Brooks told reporters.

"And we rely first and most importantly on the Iraqi people to help us rid Iraq of such violent young men. In this case, we're finding that they're all men."

Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official, said the majority of the foreigners are untrained people who were inspired by "some fire-breathing imam" to go to Iraq.

"They are turning into cannon fodder," Mr. Cannistraro said.

Military officials said scores of the untrained and lightly armed foreign forces conducted ground assaults with rifles and grenade launchers against columns of heavily armed U.S. tanks and armored vehicles. The attackers were killed in what officials described as suicide wave assaults.

Mr. Cannistraro said the fanatical Fedayeen Saddam militia set up a foreign brigade for the outside volunteers, including those willing to conduct suicide bombings.

"Apparently, not many Iraqis were willing to conduct suicide attacks," Mr. Cannistraro said.

Mr. Cannistraro said Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, has said the group's supporters should go to Iraq to fight U.S. and British troops.

So far, some Hezbollah members have made it to Iraq, but "we haven't seen the trained Hezbollah cadre," which are hard-core fighters, Mr. Cannistraro said.

One British tank group commander told the Daily Times of Pakistan that a large number of foreign guerrillas held out at Basra University last week, including one who charged a tank with a grenade.

"I have never seen such fanatical behavior. It was truly chilling," the commander said. "Our machine gun was pointed right at them. They knew they were going to die, but they just kept running at us and shouting, determined not to throw the grenade but to jump onto the tank and detonate it while still holding it."

U.S. Marines also took over a terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad, a week ago.

The camp had been used by Sudanese and Egyptian trainees, military officials said.

"We believe that this camp had been used to train these foreign fighters in terror tactics. It is now destroyed," Gen. Brooks said April 5.

"The nature of the work being done by some of those people that we captured, their inferences to the type of training they received, all these things give us the impression that there was terrorist training that was conducted at Salman Pak," he said.