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Status, numbers of foreigners fighting in Iraq remain unresolved

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Marines have said they battled more than 200 fanatical foreign Muslims near Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque on the day that Saddam Hussein's regime fell. A neighbor says there were only eight foreign fighters.

The differing accounts underscore the mystery that surrounds the number of Muslim volunteers who rushed to Iraq last month to launch a new Afghanistan-like "holy war" on U.S. troops.

If they numbered 5,000, as Saddam's government asserted and one Marine intelligence officer believes, they could bedevil occupation forces for months with ambushes and suicide attacks. If they are fewer, as many Iraqis claim, they would pose a much less serious threat.

There's also an intriguing question about what will become of the 30 or so who are in American custody. Are they members of the Iraqi military, entitled to prescribed treatment under the Geneva Conventions, or are they "unlawful combatants" whom the United States can detain indefinitely, as it has hundreds of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?

One of the captives is a "high profile" foreign terrorist on the FBI's wanted list, the Marines have said, declining to reveal his name, nationality or the crime he is alleged to have committed.

Other volunteers are Islamic radicals, Arab nationalists and communists from Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, and Russia's rebellious Muslim republic of Chechnya.

Still others told their captors they were lured to Iraq by promises of wives or money, or that they came to Iraq in search of jobs and were shanghaied into the military by Saddam's security services.

A Marine intelligence officer who spoke only on the condition of anonymity said most foreign fighters arrived by bus from neighboring Syria and Jordan, and that stamps on some of their passports showed that a large group arrived in Iraq after March 21.

The vast majority had no previous war experience, "although some of the Palestinians have experience as fighters," the Marine officer said. Whatever their experience, he added, "We've got a couple of instances when they fought quite ferociously."

How many non-Iraqis were killed and captured or are still in Iraq is unknown. Iraqis downplay the number and U.S. authorities may be exaggerating it, befuddled by the fact that while many Iraqi soldiers deserted, many men in civilian clothes put up fierce resistance.

"Everyone who fought us hard was an Arab," said the Marine intelligence officer, meaning both that the non-Iraqis fought well and that U.S. ground forces tended to think that anyone who fought well was not Iraqi.

At least eight non-Iraqis were captured near the Abu Hanifa Mosque, in Baghdad's northern Aadhamiya district, in a battle April 10 that erupted after Marines were tipped off that Saddam and his son Qusai were hiding in a house nearby.

Residents of the area said later that Saddam and Qusai had showed up at the square in front of the mosque the previous day, made a brief speech calling on Iraqis to fight the Americans and drove on.

Marines rushed to the mosque area, and reported one of the fiercest battles of the war. The Marines estimated the enemy force at 200 to 400 foreigners in the mosque and the house, and claimed they had killed many of them but never gave exact numbers.

Sign painter Kassem Mohammed, 41, and shop owner Abdul Zattar, 36, whose apartment building, across the square from the mosque, took a direct hit from a U.S. bomb, have a different story.

About 30 fighters battled the Americans, they said, only eight of them foreigners: six Syrians, one Algerian and a Lebanese. Twenty-eight of the fighters and three civilians were killed, they added.

"Saddam ate at our livers for 20 years," Mohammed said. "But those Muslims came for the right cause." They died as martyrs for Islam, he said, pointing toward their fresh graves in the mosque's side garden.

Twelve non-Iraqis were captured April 2 south of Baghdad after pitched fighting in which the Marines reported that groups of 20 to 30 foreigners used "swarming tactics" against their armored vehicles. Nine Sudanese, two Syrians and one Egyptian were taken prisoner.

"They were just mowed down. But a few minutes later the survivors would get up and charge again. They are fanatics," said Lt. Col. Al Orr of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

A Marine "Paramilitary Threat Assessment" two days later warned that "dozens" of Arab volunteers, including Syrians, Moroccans, Yemenis and Algerians, had arrived days before in the southern city of Basra.

British army officers were skeptical of the U.S. intelligence on the Arab volunteers. "There is strong evidence, but of what? Of loose borders?" said one British major who monitors reports on Basra's security status.

Whatever the truth about their numbers, the non-Iraqi prisoners pose another question: What to do with them?

Although the captured foreigners are receiving the same treatment as Iraqi prisoners of war, U.S. military officers are trying to figure out whether they can retain that status or be declared "unlawful combatants."

The U.S. Army's 800th Military Police Battalion, which runs the Camp Freddy prisoner of war camp near Iraq's port of Umm Qasr, is preparing to hold legal hearings for the foreign prisoners to determine their status, said Col. Bill Durrett, the senior adjutant for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

"If they wore uniforms, followed a chain of command and obeyed the rules of war, they are entitled to EPW (enemy prisoner of war) status under the Geneva Conventions," Durrett said. That status would require that they receive immunity for any acts of war and be sent back to their home countries when hostilities are over.

But if they are declared "unlawful combatants," Durrett said, they "could wind up in Guantanamo."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.