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Terrorism said to be gravest threat to U.S. efforts in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Terrorism has become the gravest threat to U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Iraq, and there are indications that Saddam Hussein loyalists have begun cooperating with Islamic extremists, American officials said Thursday.

The Islamic militants include Iraqi Kurds and foreign extremists who've been infiltrating from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran and are now established in a network of safe houses in Baghdad and elsewhere, they said.

"The terrorist problem is emerging as the No. 1 security threat," Army Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said at a Pentagon briefing. "We are applying a lot of time, energy and resources to identify it, understand it and deal with it."

Abizaid's assessment underscores the dilemma that Americans and their Iraqi allies face: keeping Iraq's political and economic reconstruction on track while battling increasingly sophisticated and ruthless attacks by Iraqis and foreigners united by their hatred for the United States.

The terrorists' aim is to weaken American resolve, deter the United Nations and other countries from aiding the occupation, discourage Iraqis from cooperating in reconstruction and fuel instability and discontent by disrupting public services.

The Pentagon has found itself unprepared to deal with terrorism despite warnings from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, three senior U.S. officials said in separate interviews. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of intelligence information.

"This is what we said would happen. But the powers that be ignored it or told us we were wrong," one of the officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, appearing with Abizaid on Thursday, reiterated the Bush administration's resolve to stay the course.

"The coalition will not be dissuaded from its mission, not by sabotage, not by snipers, not by terrorists with car bombs," he said.

A senior administration official said that up to three-quarters of the 20 to 30 daily "violent encounters" involving American-led coalition forces now were being initiated by Iraqi and foreign fighters, up from about half a few weeks ago. The remainder is initiated by coalition troops.

The latest and most deadly terrorist strike occurred Tuesday, when a suicide bomber detonated a truck carrying 1,500 pounds of explosives, including a 500-pound aerial bomb, at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. At least 23 people died and more than 100 others were injured.

The bombing followed strikes on utility supplies in Baghdad, oil pipelines in the north and the truck-bombing of the Jordanian Embassy. Previously, most anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq had involved guerrilla-style hit-and-run strikes.

The senior administration official said most Iraqis remained grateful that the United States had ousted Saddam. But, he added, the inability of the American-led administration to maintain security and restore basic services is rapidly eroding popular support for the U.S. military presence, the civilian authority and the 25 Iraqis on the interim Governing Council.

Abizaid declined to name any suspects in the U.N. blast. One American official said intelligence analysts suspected that Saddam supporters supplied and assembled the explosives, but that an Islamic extremist drove and detonated the truck.

Abizaid said the military had "some indications" that Islamic militants had begun cooperating with Saddam loyalists in "specific areas," even though former regime members are secularists. He declined to elaborate on the form of the cooperation.

"Ideologically, they (Saddam loyalists and Islamic militants) are not at all compatible," Abizaid said. "But on the other hand, you sometimes cooperate against what you consider a common enemy."

He and other U.S. officials said the Islamic militants included fighters of Ansar al Islam, or Partisans of Islam, an Iraqi Kurdish group that had ties to al-Qaida and was accused by the Bush administration of operating a crude poison laboratory.

American special forces and U.S.-backed Kurdish guerrillas drove Ansar from its stronghold on the Iranian border in April. But Abizaid said members who survived had "migrated from the north down to Baghdad and we think they've established there."

Among the foreign jihadis, or Islamic holy warriors, now in Iraq are Saudis, Syrians, Algerians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Yemenis and Sudanese, American officials said.

Abizaid said the terrorist threat was concentrated in a triangular swath of territory between Baghdad and the towns of Ramadi and Tikrit, Saddam's tribal home.

He said there was a need for better intelligence on the terrorist threat and to "very quickly" increase the number of Iraqi police and other security units beyond the more than 50,000 in service.

Abizaid said increasing the 139,000-strong U.S. contingent wasn't a solution, but rather having "light, agile, mobile forces."

But Abizaid added that the United States was looking for a greater number of foreign troops than previously had been disclosed. The Pentagon has been trying to assemble three divisions, about 45,000 troops. Abizaid said a fourth division might be needed.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+terror