Extremists allowed into Iraq by Saddam behind attacks
Saddam's attempt to win over devout Muslims may be contributing to the ongoing insurgency.
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 12:23 a.m.
Internationally isolated and fearful of losing power, Saddam Hussein made an astonishing move in the last years of his secular rule: He invited into Iraq clerics who preached an austere form of Islam that's prevalent in Saudi Arabia.
He also let extremely religious Iraqis join his ruling Baath Socialist Party. Saddam's bid to win over devout Muslims planted the seeds of the insurgency behind some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces today, say Saudi dissidents and U.S. officials.
"Saddam invited Muslim scholars and preachers to Iraq for his own survival," said Saad Fagih, a London-based Saudi dissident. "He convinced them that Shiites are the danger."
Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and they strongly support planned Jan. 30 elections, hoping to reverse the longtime domination of Iraq's Sunni minority. The insurgency is thought to be run mostly by Sunnis who fear losing power.
Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi - or Salafi - brand of Sunni Islam began trickling into Iraq in the mid-1990s, at the height of punishing international sanctions for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. They came from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, including some returning Iraqis who adopted the Salafi ideology in exile.
A Wahhabi mosque was even built in the Shiite holy city of Karbala at a time when Shiites were banned from worshipping their religion freely. Signs of strict Islamic codes also began appearing, such as a growing number of women wearing veils.
The words "God is great" were added to the Iraqi flag after Saddam's defeat in the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War. He closed bars and nightclubs to appease Muslims.
Around the same time, several militant Islamic groups, including Jund al-Islam (Islam's Soldier), started taking root in the mountains of northern Iraq along the Iranian border.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, these Salafi groups reorganized under Ansar al-Islam, which had ties with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda and with Jordanian militant leader Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the current insurgency.
Ansar al-Islam, which adhered to a rigid Salafi ideology, seems to have been destroyed during the initial days of the U.S.-led invasion when its bases were attacked by American forces in March 2003.
Hundreds of fighters were killed or scattered, many allegedly fleeing to Iran.
But the Ansar al-Sunnah Army - believed to be an outgrowth of Ansar al-Islam - then surfaced. The group recently claimed responsibility for the December suicide bombing at a U.S. base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing 22 people, mostly American troops. Thought to be the deadliest Iraqi-run group, it also has been behind a string of beheadings and the twin suicide bombings of Kurdish party headquarters in Irbil last February.
Al-Zarqawi formed his own group, which is suspected of being behind a campaign of beheadings, kidnappings, mortar attacks and car bombings, including one that hit the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, killing 22 people.
On Tuesday, al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for assassinating the governor of Baghdad province and six of his bodyguards.
Al-Zarqawi recently announced he was merging his Tawhid and Jihad group with al-Qaeda, and changed its name to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Bin Laden may have taken him up on the offer, according to an audiotape broadcast in December in which a speaker the CIA believes was bin Laden called al-Zarqawi his lieutenant in Iraq and said Muslims there should "listen to him."
"Thanks to American propaganda, this group has achieved the glory and fame that it lacked and always strived for," said Yasir al-Sirri, an Egyptian and strict Muslim in London.
But he dismissed American claims that al-Qaeda and Saddam were linked.
"From the start, al-Zarqawi wasn't part of al-Qaeda. Not everyone who was in Afghanistan was affiliated to al-Qaeda," said al-Sirri, who supports the Iraqi insurgency.
There's no question, however, that Saddam invited Islamic extremists into Iraq.
The core insurgency is Iraqi Sunni Muslims - a volatile mix of groups and freelancers who include loyalists of the former Baath Party, Fedayeen militiamen, former Republican Guard and intelligence agents, Islamic extremists, paid common criminals and disaffected Iraqis.
The Sunni resistance at first wanted to use al-Zarqawi as a tool to draw support for their cause, according to Fagih, who maintains contacts in Saudi Arabia.
"Foreigners came and were ready to kill themselves," he said, but the Sunni resistance discovered it couldn't control al-Zarqawi. "He's like an unguided missile."
Now, U.S. officials say it is local insurgents - essentially former regime elements and Islamic extremists, and not foreign fighters - who are proving difficult to defeat.
"If in Iraq there were only al-Zarqawi or al-Qaeda, the situation would be manageable," a U.S. government official based in Iraq said on condition of anonymity. "It would be just like any country with terrorist problems. Al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda wouldn't have the effect of what we are seeing now."
He said most of the suicide car bombings, which usually kill Iraqi civilians, police and national guardsmen, are carried out by foreign fighters, while the former regime elements have been largely involved in planting bombs to attack U.S. convoys.
The Iraqi extremists who joined the Baath Party under Saddam and are now engaged in the insurgency are not necessarily tied to al-Qaeda, the U.S. official said.
"Exactly who they are tied to or what - like other international terrorists - is very fluid," the official said. "Foreign fighters have ties to al-Qaeda. They all help each other one way or another - whether it's financial, logistical planning. . . . They share training camps used by differing groups at different times."
The camps, the official alleged, were financed mostly by rich former Baathists who fled to Syria just before the war - charges the Syrian government has denied.
Iraq's Sunni neighbors such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were against the war that toppled Saddam - partly because they feared it could result in Shiite domination.
"They didn't want the Sunni hegemony uprooted. They wanted to keep the status quo," said Hamza al-Hassan, a Shiite Saudi dissident writer in London. "Now, some Arab fighters might be joining the insurgency to protect Sunni power."
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