BAGHDAD, Iraq—Rumors are swirling around Baghdad that foreign terrorists are likely to initiate another massive wave of suicide bombings in the Iraqi capital within days and weeks as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan continues.
A shadowy Iraqi nationalist resistance group known as "Mohammed's Army" used an intermediary to pass on word that a foreign Islamic terrorist cell based in the western Iraqi town of Ramadi plans to carry out bombings on Saturday and Nov. 13, striking Baghdad police stations and other targets associated with the U.S.-led coalition.
"They will not care about bombing mosques, primary schools, civilians, women and children," said the intermediary, who said he was quoting a cell leader who claimed to have knowledge of the plan. "They said this will be a gift for the coalition."
There's no way to determine whether the warning is true, false or rumor, or to know what, if any, countermeasures the coalition will take. An American military officer, told about the warning, said only that he would pass it on.
The warning underscores the coalition's dilemma as it attempts to counter the wave of violence that has claimed the lives of 117 U.S. soldiers since President Bush declared major combat over May 1: What to do about reported threats?
Even warnings that seem specific might be wrong or intentionally misleading in a battle where coalition leaders have little idea of who they are fighting, few contacts within the opposition and little knowledge of how closely renegade members of Saddam Hussein's regime and foreign guerrillas may be cooperating.
Baghdad is abuzz with rumors, including unconfirmed ones that some schools have received letters from unsigned groups telling them not to let kids show up Saturday. The U.S. consulate acknowledged them in a report late Thursday and encouraged American citizens "to continue to maintain a high level of vigilance."
"We hear lots of things every day, but we don't know which ones to pay attention to," said an intelligence official in Washington, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified.
It was unclear why the warning was passed to a journalist. The intermediary was told that the warning would be reported to American officials. He said Mohammed's Army tolerated the foreign terrorist cell but didn't work with it, and drew a distinction between targeting civilians and U.S. soldiers.
The intermediary said the leadership of Mohammed's Army was confident of its information, and that the foreign terrorist cell, whose origins, organization and name remain murky, was the one that bombed the Red Cross headquarters and four police stations Monday in Baghdad.
As proof of the warning, the nationalist group said it had received a message from the foreign cell shortly before Ramadan began that said, "In three days, we will have a gift for the Iraqi people."
The leader of the Mohammed's Army cell that sent the intermediary told him that the message's meaning was unclear at the time, but in hindsight referred to Monday's bombings.
The Mohammed's Army cell leader also told the intermediary that members of Saddam's former intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, are helping the foreign terrorist cell plan the bombings and providing them with explosives and vehicles.
Senior military commanders in Iraq and Bush administration officials have blamed Monday's bombings on foreign terrorists, who they say have been slipping across the country's porous borders in increasing numbers in recent months. About 250 foreign fighters are in coalition hands, according to senior officials. Nineteen of them are suspected of being low-level al-Qaida operatives, although those links haven't been proved.
One of Monday's bombers was shot and taken into custody before he could set off his explosives-laden vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser packed with 225 pounds of TNT, according to Iraqi officials and American military officers. He was handed over to American custody and was discovered to be carrying a Syrian passport, U.S. military officials said. After extensive interrogation, he is now thought to be from Yemen, although a U.S. military officer said Thursday that his identity and nationality remain unclear.
Senior officials in Iraq and Washington blame the stubborn insurgency on loyalists to the former regime, common criminals and foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Ansar al Islam, a group that Saddam allowed to operate in northern Iraq before the war, but was thought largely destroyed by U.S. bombing in the opening days of the invasion. Senior officials have contended for months that Ansar was regrouping, with several hundred members slipping back into Iraq from neighboring Iran.
Monday's bombings, the capture of the Yemeni and the warning of more suicide strikes offer the strongest evidence to date of those assertions. But a senior coalition official, who also asked not to be named, acknowledged Thursday that intelligence on the Iraqi resistance remains poor.
"We don't have enough humint (human intelligence or informants) to really know," the official said.
That lack of informants is a major handicap for U.S. intelligence, something unlikely to be helped by a range of new technology being sent to Iraq to help track anti-coalition groups.
"Maybe some of these gizmos can tell where people are hiding, but so far as I know, none of them can tell the difference between a civilian with a water bucket and a guy in civilian clothes with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)," said an official in Washington. "And none of them can tell what target they're going to try to hit next. To do that, you need to recruit spies, and that's messy and hard and it takes time."
"The intelligence problems are worse today than they were during the war," said another Washington-based U.S. intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. " Our forces are more static and theirs are more dispersed. They know where we are; we don't know where they are, or even who they are. We have an endless number of things to defend: barracks, airports, pipelines, electric lines, police stations and so forth. They don't."
But it's clear that at least some people in Iraq have detailed information about the opposition.
The intermediary, quoting the Mohammed's Army cell leader, said 25 foreign fighters including Palestinians, Syrians, Saudis, Jordanians and Sudanese were fighting alongside Iraqis in Mohammed's Army cells based in western Iraq. The organization has about 20 to 25 people in each cell, with an underground presence in Ramadi, Khaldiya, Fallujah in western Iraq and the towns of Dhuluiya, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, and Baqubah, about 40 miles northeast of the capital. All the towns are within the arc known as the Sunni Triangle, where resistance against U.S. forces has been strongest.
Mohammed's Army does carry out attacks in Baghdad, the intermediary said, but doesn't have a permanent network of cells in the capital. The group's operatives usually meet at a predetermined series of safe houses in Baghdad several days in advance to plan and execute an operation, then retreat to their home villages.
In contrast to U.S. military officials' assertions that there are no indications of an extensive underground network, the intermediary said Mohammed's Army was just one name used by a far-flung militant underground known as "The Islamic Group."
Though some of the network's members served in Saddam's former army, they're not loyalists of the former regime, the intermediary said. Most of the cells are based on tribal and family links, making them difficult for outsiders to penetrate. Their numbers are unclear.
The Mohammed's Army cell leader contended, through the intermediary, that the group doesn't cooperate with the foreign terrorist cell and restricts its attacks to U.S. military targets.
"They are not fighting for the old regime," the intermediary said. "They are nationalists fighting against the occupation."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent John Walcott contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.