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Emergence of copycat militant groups bedevils intelligence officials

BAGHDAD, Iraq—There are the White Flags, the Green Battalions and the Holders of the Black Banners. There's Mohammed's Army and, not to be outdone, Mohammed's Second Army. The Lions of God and the Harvest of Resistance are recent arrivals.

Shadowy new militant groups crop up almost weekly in Iraq, with names that sound like rejected rock bands and with cadres of masked gunmen posing for video cameras. While some really are hardened guerrillas responsible for brutal attacks, many are amateur copycats.

The proliferation of these militant groups is yet another frustration for American and Iraqi intelligence experts struggling to figure out exactly who the enemy is.

"To what extent each of these groups turns out to actually be a serious threat varies on the goals of the groups and what they profess," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "Even if they are seen only once, we take great care in ensuring that we do everything we can to protect our forces and deny them access to inflict damage, take hostages or further their goals."

The explosion of Sunni Muslim start-up cells has led to dueling claims of responsibility for the same attacks, confusion over who's holding foreign hostages and a trend in militants emphasizing on camera that they're "the real Iraqi resistance."

In July, a group calling itself the Salvation Movement formed solely to discredit and hunt down a rival group linked to the al-Qaida terror network. After drawing headlines worldwide, it disappeared as quickly as it emerged.

"It's really quite a big problem," said Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. "If you and I wanted to make some money, we could think of a name, record a video and be on al Jazeera the next day."

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite TV channel that reaches millions of viewers in the Islamic world, is still the medium of choice for militants. While the station won't release figures, al Jazeera receives far more tapes than it airs—partly because producers are more cautious these days about providing a forum for groups that are here today, gone tomorrow. Militants have since turned to Web sites and fliers to get their message out.

"We have our own ways, born from experience and knowledge of the terrain in Iraq, in ascertaining whether they are mainstream groups or not," said Jihad Ballout, spokesman for al Jazeera.

Ballout and others familiar with militants' claims emphasized that two or three established terror networks are still behind most of Iraq's mayhem. The best known are the Kurdish-based Ansar al Islam and al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, led by Jordanian terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and recently allied with Osama bin Laden.

But the mainstays now share a stage with groups that name themselves after historic battles, popular caliphs and political revolutions. The lesser-known groups also adopt the same style as the established ones: They mask their faces, brandish guns and stand before black banners inscribed with Arabic calligraphy. A terrified hostage is often crouched on the ground in front of the camera.

In the past, perhaps six months ago, intelligence experts scrutinized all videos for clues. Now there are so many, officials just try to identify faces and focus their efforts on tracking the more established militants, said Kadhim, the Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman.

Real insurgent groups seldom release their captives, instead executing foreign hostages and then posting the grisly video footage on Web sites or sending the tapes to al Jazeera. Terrorist wannabes, on the other hand, kidnap rich targets, imitate the hostage videos of Islamic extremists, but in most cases release the victims for exorbitant ransoms.

Whether motivated by politics or money, however, the effect is the same: Aid groups, private companies and even foreign governments have pulled out of Iraq, slowing the pace of reconstruction and bedeviling forces trying to crush the hardcore rebels.

With so many groups vowing to fight in their name, ordinary Iraqis have given up trying to distinguish anti-occupation fighters from foreign terrorists from opportunistic kidnapping gangs.

Some Iraqis guessed that the different names are just a ploy by the same groups to cover their trails or make the public believe the opposition is much larger than it is. A few conspiracy theorists said the groups are all phantoms conjured up by foreign intelligence agencies to justify a prolonged U.S.-led presence in Iraq.

"When I see these new groups on TV, I laugh, but at the same time I'm sad because they say they are representing Islam," said Selwa Abdullah, 44, of Baghdad. "I get disgusted because they are ruining our picture in front of the world. They try to use fiery names, names that mean a lot to Iraqis, but I know they don't represent us."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.