WASHINGTON—A growing number of Islamic militants are crossing into Iraq from Iran and Syria in an attempt to attack the tens of thousands of American soldiers there, posing a lethal new threat to stabilization efforts, U.S. officials said on Friday.
In the case of Iran, intelligence reports indicate that the effort to secretly move a large number of third-country Arab fighters into neighboring Iraq has the backing of parts of Iran's divided government. It is being orchestrated by elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the classified information involved.
It is less clear whether the Syrian government is aiding the foreign fighters, some linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, who are crossing its porous border with Iraq, the officials said.
The number of individuals involved is unclear.
But the threat to U.S. troops was highlighted this week when an American force attacked a suspected terrorist training camp northeast of Baghdad, killing as many as 80 people. Most of the dead were non-Iraqis, including Saudis, Syrians, Yemenis and Africans, according to reports from the scene.
In a separate raid Thursday, paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade rounded up 74 suspected "al-Qaida sympathizers" near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, U.S. Central Command said in a statement. But at a Pentagon briefing Friday, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top allied commander in Iraq, cautioned that it was "premature" to label the captives as linked to al-Qaida.
For Islamic militants intent on waging "holy war" against the United States, Iraq represents a "target-rich environment," a senior U.S. official said.
Daniel Benjamin, a former White House counter-terrorism expert, said it should come as no surprise that "jihadists" are surging toward Iraq in hope of bloodying American soldiers there.
"This was completely predictable, and in fact was predicted," said Benjamin, who wrote in a commentary last October that even a pacified post-war Iraq "will still be a magnet for jihadists from all over the world."
The threat, combined with resistance from Sunni and Shiite Muslims and members of Saddam Hussein's former Baathist regime means "we're going to have an awful lot on our hands" and it could force the United States to further increase its troop presence, said Benjamin, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The U.S. officials said the Iranian effort appears to be aimed at forcing the departure of American forces from Iraq. That would improve the chances that Iraqi Shiite groups backed by Iran could take power in Baghdad and install a regime friendly to Tehran.
"The Iranians appear to believe that they can drive us out of Iraq the same way they drove us out of Lebanon—with terrorist attacks against both military and civilian targets," one of the officials said.
The Reagan administration withdrew U.S. forces from Beirut in 1984 following a series of Iranian-backed car bomb attacks against the American Embassy and U.S. Marines in the Lebanese capital that left over 300 dead.
Other intelligence, which the officials said is less firm, suggests that the Arabs who are sneaking into Iraq through Iran are being directed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who U.S. officials say has links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
There is also fragmentary information that the Revolutionary Guards have shipped a limited amount of weapons and ammunition into Iraq.
The State Department has sent repeated messages to the Iranian government protesting its attempts to destabilize Iraq, which include backing an armed Iraqi Shiite force known as the Badr Brigades.
Saudi Foreign Minister Price Saud al Faisal is expected to carry another such U.S. message to Tehran shortly, officials said.
Syria, by contrast, has made attempts to close down its border with Iraq, although not always successfully, the officials said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke Friday with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al Sharaa on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two men did not discuss the Syria-Iraq border, a senior State Department official said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.