The March 2 suicide-bomber attacks on Shiite holy sites were the deadliest since the fall of Saddam Hussein and part of an ongoing campaign to destabilize Iraq and interrupt the country’s transition to democracy. Coalition officials in Baghdad attributed the attacks to foreign terrorists affiliated, loosely or otherwise, with al-Qaeda and specifically to Jordanian-born Palestinian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, told Congress that he had seen “intelligence that ties Zarqawi to the attack.”
Coalition officials in Baghdad say that suicide attacks, like those on March 2, are most likely the work of foreign terrorists or “internationally professional killers,” in the words of the U.S. Administrator in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer. The Associated Press reports that there have been at least 19 suicide-bomb attacks since last August in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi claims credit for 25 “martyrdom operations,” and General Mark Kimmitt, Deputy Director of Coalitions Operations, told reporters “there is certainly a body of evidence that would point to Zarqawi as the perpetrator of those crimes. ”
General Abizaid also told Congress that there is evidence that Zarqawi and other foreign terrorists are “in close coordination with former Iraqi intelligence service people.” That is particularly ominous, since last fall the Iraq Survey Group reported that, since 1996, the Iraqi Intelligence Service had controlled a clandestine network of biological warfare labs and facilities. The ISG has yet to uncover stockpiles of bio-warfare agents, although before the war Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that Hans Blix said the Iraqis had never accounted for the thousands of liters of anthrax the UN estimated they had produced.
But as with the weapons of mass destruction issue, many in the media now openly dispute the Coalition’s assessments of foreign terrorists being behind the suicide bomber attacks. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Patrick McDonnell and Sebastian Rotella challenge what they claim is “the widely held view that Iraq’s suicide bombers are exclusively foreign jihadis.” Rotella, who attends Coalition press conferences in Baghdad, also charges that U.S. officials are exaggerating the role of Al-Zarqawi, and foreign terrorists in general, in attacks like those conducted against the Shiites on March 2. He cites U.S. commanders as saying “their foes are mostly Iraqi.” He writes that a U.S. Army Major told him, “It’s clearly wrong to pin all the attacks on Zarqawi or suggest that this is exclusively a foreign-fueled, foreign-initiated insurgency, because that’s not the case.”
But that is in itself a distortion of the case Coalition officials are making. They believe that a sort of division of effort has emerged between the foreign jihadists and former regime elements. In their briefings in Baghdad, they distinguish between attacks on coalition forces, which they think are conducted by these latter elements, and the more spectacular, symbolic suicide attacks on new Iraqi police and army forces and Iraqis themselves. They do believe that foreign jihadists are deeply involved in the planning and execution of these attacks. But they also acknowledge that foreign jihadists are supported by “small numbers of Iraqis, whatever their motivations.”
A letter written by al-Zarqawi and believed to be intended for top al-Qaeda leaders reinforced this assessment. Al-Zarqawi noted the reluctance of the “Iraqi brothers” to conduct “martyrdom” operations and their preference for “mines planted, rockets launched, and mortars shelling from afar.” He is also clear on the targets for the foreign jihadists’ attacks: police, military, and the Shiites. At a mid-February briefing, coalition officials said that about 300 Iraqi police officers have been killed in the line of duty, with others, including Iraqi police chiefs, on the target list. Six of the 19 suicide attacks reported by the AP have been on Iraqi police stations, not counting one attack on an Italian paramilitary police headquarters. And there have been two major suicide attacks on Shiite targets; in addition to the March 2 attacks, last August a car bomb destroyed a mosque in Najaf, killing 85 including Shiite Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.
Media skeptics also allege that the coalition is overstating the numbers of foreign jihadists in Iraq. Last November, the New York Times’ Joel Brinkley wrote that, in contrast to the 1,000 – 3,000 foreign fighters the White House claimed are in Iraq, his sources told him that U.S. forces had “encountered only a handful of foreign fighters trying to sneak into the country to attack American and allied forces.” That’s misleading, however. Coalition officials have been clear that attacks on coalition forces are still coming mainly from former regime loyalists, while the foreign jihadists are concentrating on Iraqi targets.