BAGHDAD, Iraq—Postwar Iraq has become what many U.S. intelligence officials feared and some predicted: a magnet for terrorists, who are finding shelter among a people growing more disaffected by the American-led occupation of their country.
On Thursday, the American commander of allied forces in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, confirmed the obvious after the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was bombed: Terrorism is "the number one security threat in Iraq." Foreign terrorists are streaming over the border to join forces with local guerillas, the general warned.
"Clearly, they're going after Iraqis that are cooperating with us," Abizaid said at a Pentagon news conference. "They're going after soft targets of the international community. They're still seeking to inflict casualties upon the United States."
Increasingly, said one senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the terrorists appear to have a well-thought-out strategy that may be working, as the United Nations and other international agencies pare back their presence and the United States faces the prospect of a long, lonely and costly occupation, with uncertain chances of creating a democratic and stable Iraq friendly to the West.
The terrorist strategy has four elements:
_Kill Americans to raise the cost of the occupation and attract foreign jihadis—holy warriors—by killing under the banner of Islam.
_Kill other foreigners to discourage cooperation with the United States.
_Kill alleged Iraqi collaborators with the Americans.
_Stoke popular discontent by sabotaging basic services and encouraging street crime.
What Abizaid didn't say—but ordinary Iraqis know—is that terrorists are finding sympathizers among a growing number of people who have been alienated by the heavy-handed tactics of American soldiers, and by the failure of the U.S.-led occupation to deliver safe streets, electricity, clean water and jobs.
"The occupation is a mess," said Hassan Fattah Pasha, the Iraqi-American editor of Iraq Today, a weekly English-language newspaper. "The people who really would have stuck their necks out for us—we're losing them. The more upset people get with the Americans, the more likely they are to at least look away from the troublemakers, if not support them."
The U.S.-led coalition is making some strides. It has set up local councils around the country, soldiers have been rebuilding schools and American administrators are establishing an independent court system. But those achievements are overshadowed by the continuing disorder that has made Iraq so inviting for terrorists.
The two major bombings of civilians in two weeks—at the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. offices—targeted allies to the U.S. effort, clearly aimed at scaring them off. Those, along with three large-scale incidents of sabotage amid a steady drumbeat of deadly violence against American troops, threaten the viability of the reconstruction effort.
Although the United Nations has pledged to remain in the country, it has pulled out a third of its staff, and other organizations are reassessing their presence. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose loans will be essential to rebuilding Iraq's economy, withdrew their personnel this week.
Terrorists find Iraq an easy place to operate. It's a giant ammunition dump, filled with discarded and deadly explosives that are easy pickings for would-be bomb-makers. Saddam spent years building up his weapons arsenal. As the war wound down in April, many Iraqi soldiers just abandoned their guns and ammunition and walked away.
In a country the size of California, no number of soldiers can protect every hospital, hotel, bridge, electrical station, water and oil pipeline, especially from determined suicide attackers. Even if more troops could make a difference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has refused to send them. Efforts to bring in more international troops have stumbled over the Bush administration's unwillingness to cede control to the United Nations.
Neither can the U.S.-led force, which numbers about 150,000, police Iraq's porous borders. Although more than 800 Iraqi border guards have been hired, a fully capable force is months away.
Abizaid and other American officials say the answer to the threat lies in turning over more security tasks to the new Iraqi police force, now 50,000 strong, and civil defense corps, whose training started this month.
But police instruction consists of just three days of basics, and many officers remain unarmed. A new Iraqi army, projected at around 40,000, is two years away.
Most Iraqis expressed horror over the U.N. bombing, which killed 23 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, and wounded more than 100. But more and more of them are cheering—or at least tolerating—attacks on American soldiers.
A poll last month by the U.S.-funded Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies showed that 22 percent of Iraqis thought the attacks on soldiers were provoked by troops' bad behavior. Another 25 percent attributed them to "resistance forces," a word that in Arabic suggests sympathy for the attackers.
"Let me ask you a question," said Amir Diahiab, 36, whose father's home was raided by U.S. troops last month and heavily damaged. "If the Iraqi army invaded your country, and burst into your home at night, would you accept it or would you fight them?"
With gunfire erupting nightly in Baghdad and banditry widespread, many Iraqis in the capital complain that they've seen little improvement in their lives. Four months after Saddam's ouster, drivers spend hours waiting in gasoline lines. Electric power runs for a few hours at a time before it quits for several more. Water still hasn't been restored in some areas. Millions of people don't have jobs.
Every time U.S. soldiers kick in a door in the middle of the night or search a woman, Iraqis get angry. That anger spikes to outrage when innocent civilians die because a jumpy American soldier at a checkpoint fires his automatic weapon.
"I feel there is not much difference between the Americans and the former regime," said Ali al Garnawai, who owns three tobacco stores where U.S. soldiers often buy Cuban cigars. "They point their guns at people for no reason. They kill people if they drive in the wrong place."
Publicly, the Bush administration and the military say Iraqis are coming forward more often with tips about weapons caches, guerrilla fighters and former regime officials. They say the vast majority of the thousands of anti-American fighters they've arrested are die-hard members of the former regime.
But a senior intelligence official in Washington, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged that the inability to maintain security and restore basic services is eroding popular support for the U.S. presence and the Iraqi interim Governing Council.
"If the Iraqi people turn against us, we're really in trouble," said Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University.
Stern, who opposed the war, wrote this week that the U.N. bombing "was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one."
President Bush, in a speech last month, said a free Iraq "will not be a training ground for terrorists, or a funnel of money to terrorists, or provide weapons to terrorists who would willingly use them to strike our country. A free Iraq will not destabilize the Middle East."
Yet instability was what Abizaid described, with a terrorist threat in Iraq from a combination of foreign Islamic radicals and homegrown insurgents.
U.S. intelligence officials say hundreds of foreign fighters have been streaming into Iraq in recent weeks from across the Arab world. Abizaid said there was evidence of tactical cooperation between them and Saddam loyalists.
"I wouldn't say they have become allies per se, but I believe that there are some indications of cooperation in specific areas," Abizaid said. "Of course, ideologically they are not at all compatible. But on the other hand, you sometimes cooperate against what you consider a common enemy."
In addition, Abizaid said, the al Qaida-linked terrorist group Ansar al Islam has established cells in Baghdad.
Intelligence analysts in Washington suspect that the U.N. bomb was built by remnants of Saddam's regime, but delivered and detonated by an Islamic extremist, said one senior official, who also asked not to be named.
"Targeting the U.N. was a warning that anyone who cooperates with the United States—foreign or domestic—is a collaborator and will be treated accordingly," the official said. "The message to the Turks, the Pakistanis and others who might be thinking about helping out is: `Stay out of this.'"
(Ken Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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