The New York Times
June 22, 2003
Foreign Fighters Add to Resistance in Iraq, U.S. Says
By MICHAEL R. GORDON with DOUGLAS JEHL
CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, June 21 _ United States military commanders say foreign fighters are being actively recruited by loyalists to Saddam Hussein to join the resistance against American forces in Iraq, posing a new challenge to efforts to stabilize the country.
Military officials say that American troops in Iraq have had to contend with Syrians, Saudis, Yemenis, Algerians, Lebanese and even Chechens.
Many of these fighters took up arms against the United States during the American thrust to Baghdad. A significant number remain, and a new effort is under way to lure more to Iraq to join the fight against the Americans, officials say.
"You have got Baath Party and regime loyalists west and northeast of the city who are calling buddies in foreign countries and getting fighters to come across the border," Maj. Gen. William Webster, deputy commander of the allied land command, said in an interview. "They are also rounding up those who are already here and issuing them weapons."
New evidence about the role of foreign fighters, including passports and other documents, was gathered after the American air and ground attack last week on a militant camp at Rawa, about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. According to American military commanders, two wounded foreigners were also captured _ a Saudi and a Syrian.
American officials said the two captives had told them that they were offered money to come to Iraq and kill American soldiers.
Foreign fighters played an important role during the war. Busloads of fighters drove in from Syria and fought soldiers from the Army's Third Infantry Division who pushed into the center of Baghdad. American soldiers confirmed their nationality by retrieving passports from bodies of dead fighters.
What is significant now, American military officials say, is that foreign fighters continue to play an active role in Iraq and continue to be recruited for pay or to join in a new struggle against the Americans. The effort indicates a considerable degree of organization behind the resistance against the American presence, though officials say it does not appear to be under the central control of a single leader or group.
It also points to an emerging threat to American forces. Militants who want to striForeign Fighters Add to Resista.ems ke against American targets no longer need to travel to Persian Gulf states. They can accomplish that in Iraq, where there are 145,000 American troops and a growing core of civilian administrators and experts.
The American military has been been trying to track the fighters and has been attacking them when they find them. The goals are to demonstrate that the fighters have no hope of evicting American forces from Iraq and to prevent Iraq from becoming a magnet for Islamic militants. The goals of the foreign fighters seem to be to raise the American casualty toll and to create pressure on the Americans to withdraw.
"Their goal is to break our will and persuade us to prepare an exit strategy," a Washington-based official said.
The strike on the Rawa camp is a recent case in which the Americans clashed with foreign militants. The camp appears to have been a site where foreign and Iraqi fighters trained for attacks on Americans.
American officials estimated that there were almost 70 fighters at the camp before the attack. Some foreigners were trying to get there from Syria when the raid occurred, an official said. The exact number of fighters killed in the attack and how many of them were foreign is difficult to say. The camp was pummeled by satellite-guided bombs and attacked by an AC-130 gunship.
Most of the fighters were literally ripped apart by the blasts, American military officials say, making it difficult to determine how many were there in the first place. An Army Ranger was wounded in the attack, the only American casualty in the raid. An American Apache helicopter was also shot down, an indication of the ferocity of the resistance.
American officials assume the fighters are militants whose presence in Iraq is not state-sponsored.
There appear to be several reasons why foreign fighters have managed to maintain a foothold in Iraq. One is the nature of the American campaignForeign Fighters Add to Resista.ems itself. The United States soldiers and marines who converged on Baghdad moved north toward their goal from Kuwait. The areas west of the capital and the stretch north between Baghdad and Tikrit were not in the invasion path. For two months after the fall of Baghdad, the American military presence in those regions was relatively limited. One result is that Hussein loyalists and other fighters used those areas to hide and regroup.
"So there were too few of the Baathists and the Saddam Hussein enforcers that were captured or killed in that area," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a recent news conference. "And that means that that portion of the conflict continues."
The failure to find Mr. Hussein is also a factor. Whether he is alive is uncertain, but the inability of the allies to find him has enabled Iraqi insurgents to continue invoking his name as a rallying cry.
Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, which is deployed north of Baghdad, said that his soldiers had been successful in reducing infiltration across the Iran-Iraq border and that he thought progress had been made in controlling Iraq's border with Syria. But the western part of Iraq is still a dangerous region.
A Defense Department official said there had been 131 incidents of conflict involving American forces in Iraq during the past two weeks, only about 40 percent of which had been initiated by American forces. Most were in the regions that United States forces have identified as the Falluja, Balad and Baquba corridors, which include areas that abut Syria and were among the last occupied by American troops.
Of the 131 incidents, 41 were attacks on American compounds, 26 were attacks on observation or guard posts, and 26 involved American convoys. Most took place at night, with small arms or rocket-propelled grenades.
American officials say that they do not know where Mr. Hussein is and that they have no reason to think that he is orchestrating the attacks.
"There are clearly more foreign fighters in the country than we ever knew, and they're popping up all over," a senior Defense Department official said.
Mr. Rumsfeld also underscored the problem this week.
"We know that there were busloads coming in with money and recruiting posters during the conflict, and we stopped the buses to the extent we found them," he said. "The people that are getting scooped up now, there's some Syrians in the latest net that was cast. And I'm sure there are people _ either they were in there or they're still coming in from neighboring countries. And it is something that's obviously unhelpful."
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/22/international/worldspecial/22FIGH.html
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