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Foreign fighters, assorted groups cooperating to mount terror attacks, U.S. says

WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence officials now believe that some foreign Islamic fighters are cooperating with remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, surviving members of a Kurdish Islamic militant group, a new crop of foreign Islamic militants and a smattering of Iraqi nationalists and angry Shiite Muslims to mount terrorist attacks in Iraq.

In his Saturday radio address, parts of which reflected the intelligence analysts' latest assessment, President Bush acknowledged that the groups "have different long-term goals," but he said they "share a near-term strategy: to intimidate Iraqis from building a free government and to cause America and our allies to flee our responsibilities. The terrorists grew to believe that if they hit America hard—as in Lebanon and Somalia—America would retreat and back down."

The intelligence officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence assessments are classified, said they have no evidence that the attacks are centrally directed. They said many of the attacks appear to be carried out independently by small groups using improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

But they said the groups have begun to lend what one official called "some significant support" to one another:

_ Local Iraqis, the officials said, are providing near real-time intelligence by watching U.S. troop movements, roads and defenses, as an August 18 U.S. Army War College study reported the Iraqis did as American forces drove toward Baghdad in March and April.

"Scouts in civilian clothes reconnoitered U.S. positions continuously; reported via cell/satellite phones, landlines, couriers," the War College study said. The study also reported that U.S. Marines in the southern city of Nasiriyah captured a "detailed, accurate sandtable of U.S. positions."

Intelligence officials also worry that hostile Iraqis may have penetrated some coalition civilian and military operations, housing compounds and other areas, much as members of the Viet Cong simultaneously worked for and spied on the United States, the South Vietnamese government and some news organizations during the Vietnam War.

"You never know who you might have working for you, and some of these people, I'm not sure they are who they say they are," said one senior coalition military official in Baghdad.

_ Holdouts from Saddam's military, irregular forces, intelligence service and secret police provide vehicles, munitions, military expertise, especially in making and detonating explosives, and what one official called "some higher level understanding of our equipment and tactics based on the `91 (Persian Gulf) war and the technical help they got over the years from the Soviet Union."

_ Members of the militant Kurdish Islamic group Ansar al Islam who survived U.S. and Kurdish attacks on their sanctuary in northern Iraq earlier this year, the officials said, provide a network of safe houses in the Baghdad area. Saddam's government tolerated the terrorist group's presence because Ansar's main enemy was Saddam's Kurdish opponents in northern Iraq, who are cooperating with the United States.

"Maybe some people (in the administration) overstated the ties between Saddam and Ansar, and between Ansar and al-Qaida," said one official. "But everybody knew everybody else, and that may have made it easier for them to find one another and cooperate now."

_ Fresh Islamic recruits from Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria and even Albania, one official said, provide "a willingness to carry out suicide missions" as well as "some limited training with rudimentary weapons and tactics. A lot of what we seem to be seeing aren't hardcore mujahedeen from the Afghan war (against Soviet occupation) or senior al-Qaida, but new recruits who want their turn."

"Each of these groups by itself would be less of a problem," said another official. "But by cooperating, they've been able to watch us more closely and adapt faster to what we're doing. As a result, this is going to take some time, even if we avoid making the kind of mistakes that (anger) more people and drive them into the enemy camp."


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