Rebel War Spirals Out of Control As U.S. Intelligence Loses the Plot
By Peter Beaumont and Patrick Graham
Sunday 02 November 2003
The ghosts of Vietnam are returning as Baathists, zealots, criminals, tribal leaders and al Qaeda unite in a deadly alliance of hatred.
Sharp disagreements are emerging between the US and the UK over the exact nature of the Iraqi resistance, amid warnings that the US is losing the intelligence war against the rebels.
After eight days in which Iraqi fighters have scored a series of major blows to the coalition and its Iraqi allies, intelligence and military officials in Iraq and on both sides of the Atlantic are at odds over whether they are fighting a Saddam-led movement or a series of disparate partisan groups. They are just as divided on finding a way to halt the escalating violence.
The latest violence comes amid increasingly bleak assessments from Washington, where the latest attacks have been compared in the media to Vietnam's 1968 Tet Offensive against US forces and described by Sandy Berger, a former National Security Adviser to President Bill Clinton, as a 'classic guerrilla war'.
The comments follow leaked assessments by both the US pro-consul in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer, and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that war against the resistance was going less well than planned, with the latter describing a 'long, hard slog'.
By last week that long, hard slog had seen attacks on coalition forces and the Iraqis co-operating with them reaching a level of 33 a day - more than twice the level in July. Anti-coalition fighters have ratcheted up the scale of attacks on schools, police and politicians, while assaults on the US-led forces have become more confident and sophisticated.
US and UK officials admit that at the centre of the worsening crisis - which has seen the UN and other aid agencies withdraw international staff from the country following the bombing of the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad - is a continuing failure of hard intelligence on exactly who is behind the resistance.
The urgency of the problem was underlined by comments by a former CIA director last week that unless the coalition forces get a grip on the intelligence-gathering problem - in particular building relationships with ordinary Iraqis - it may be too late.
'We're at a crossroads,' Stansfield Turner, told the Christian Science Monitor. 'If in the next few weeks we don't persuade the Iraqi on the street that we're going to straighten things out... we won't get that intelligence.'
A mark of that failure, say officials, has been the inability of coalition forces and the intelligence and policing agencies available to them to solve any of the major bombings that began in August.
'The fundamental issue with counter-insurgency warfare is intelligence. Intelligence is what matters and it is 90 per cent of the battle,' Gordon Adams, a former associate director for national security, told the New York Times.
'It's knowing who they are, where they are and when they act. If we know anything from Vietnam and the various things that have gone on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that our humint [human intelligence] is terrible. We know that we were woefully under-prepared in general.'
It is a view shared in part by British officials, who concede that attempts to infiltrate the resistance have been without success.
Others are sharply critical of how the intelligence war against the rebels has been handled. They point to a woeful shortage of Arab linguists and analysts familiar with Arab culture in the US-run sector, despite being six months into the insurgency.
To counter this, Pentagon officials briefed last week that some of these specialists working among the 1,400-strong Iraq Survey Group on the unsuccessful search for stockpiles of unconventional weapons would be transferred to this effort.
So who exactly is the resistance? In recent days American officials have briefed US papers for the first time that Saddam Hussein may be playing a significant role in co-ordinating and directing attacks by his loyalists, despite conceding such reports could not be corroborated.
The claims are based in part on reports that Saddam met Izzat Ibrahim, a senior Iraqi general suspected by American officials of playing a significant role in organising the resistance and co-ordinating with Ansar al-Islam, linked to al Qaeda.
The depiction by these Pentagon officials of the structure of the resistance - though tentatively expressed - suggest a hierarchical organisation, led by former Saddam officials, with Saddam at its head, and allied to groups of foreign jihadists and al Qaeda under a single command.
Whether true or not, it is a politically convenient description of the resistance for the Bush regime, suggesting as it does that the rebels represent no more than the desperate remains of Saddam's regime with no wider resonance, despite escalating attacks.
It is not, however, recognised by British officials. The picture that they paint of what is going on in Iraq is a more chaotic and a far more dangerous one.
'What we are looking at,' one UK official told The Observer, 'is not some monolithic organisation with a clear command. That would be far easier for us to deal with and get into. Instead, we are looking at lots of different groups with different agendas. They are locally organised with each having its loyalty focused on middle-ranking former commanders.'
What he describes is a network of partisan-type groups without a central command and links between them based on personal relationships - an organic rather than monolithic structure.
The groups' communications - based, say Iraqis, on couriers, often teenage boys, to carry messages - have been equally difficult for the coalition to penetrate.
And they have very little difficulty in getting materiel for attacks or the money to finance the operations. Iraqi military doctrine under Saddam, especially after the first Gulf war, long envisaged the risk of a second US-led invasion that would attempt to depose the regime. The consequence was the placement across the country of hidden caches of weapons, explosives, fuel and cash, all in vast amounts - everything required to run a guerrilla war.
'We are looking at three categories of group involved in the resistance,' said one official. 'There are ex-Baathists, especially in the Sunni triangle [where the majority of Special Republican guard and members of Saddam's security organisations were traditionally recruited from]. Then there are groups like Ansar al-Islam and groups that may be affiliated to al Qaeda or sympathetic to them. Finally, there are foreign jihadists who have been drawn to Iraq to fight Americans.'
It is a view endorsed by a former colonel in the Iraqi security services interviewed by The Observer. 'It is a mixture of different groups - former Mukhabarat [security services], religious groups and Baath party members. If Saddam is involved in the resistance, as some at the Pentagon are claiming, then he believes he is just one leader among many.
'Saddam is playing some role but he is not the only one. Some groups may not even know he is leading them. I think that he is moving around meeting as many of these groups as possible.
'These groups are separate, but work together more and more as the various leaders are contacting each other. Most people are not doing it because of Saddam, but for religious or nationalist reasons. Some are criminals, who under other circumstances few people would have anything to do with. Some are paid, but not many.'
He suggested that last Sunday's rocket attack on the Al Rashid Hotel showed a level of sophistication that was new for the resistance. An underground cell working with staff at the hotel, which was once virtually run by the Iraqi secret service, watched the arrival of guests while street cleaners worked with an underground cell to position the rocket launcher.
After the arrival of Under-Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, the launcher, disguised as a generator, was remotely activated.
Most worrying of all is the emergence of a broad, post-Saddam ideology across the groups. And if recent polling in Baghdad is to be believed, it is rapidly gaining currency with ordinary Iraqis. It is crudely simple, insisting that the US-led occupation is an assault against both Islam and the wider Arab nation, that Iraqis must resist and that anyone who assists the occupiers is an enemy as much as US troops.
But it is not only the home-grown resistance that is concerning the coalition. It has also been struggling to prevent a wave of devastating suicide bombings against a variety of targets which Western intelligence officials increasingly believe may be being carried out by foreigners coming to fight the Americans in Iraq.
Two officials have told The Observer that they do not believe the suicide bombings are 'Iraqi style'. 'It does not feel to us like their way of doing things,' said one.
The comments follow warnings from intelligence officials across Europe, reported in yesterday's New York Times, that since the summer hundreds of young militants have left Europe to join the resistance in Iraq, a trend which is also in evidence across the Arab world.
The paper quotes Jean-Louis Bruguière, France's leading investigative judge on terrorism, who said that dozens of young Muslim men had left France for Iraq since the summer, inspired by the exhortations of al Qaeda leaders, even if they were not trained by the movement.
According to the Iraqi colonel interviewed by The Observer: 'There is no specific information on these car bombs.' He believes that the attacks are 'probably organised by religious Iraqi groups but carried out by foreigners who want to become martyrs during Ramadan.'
But a question that is also worrying coalition and other officials is precisely who is organising these would-be foreign fighters and putting them in touch with resistance groups.
One disturbing theory being investigated is that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a former Afghan jihadist of Jordanian-Palestinian extraction who knows the al Qaeda leadership, may have recently entered Iraq and be organising foreign fighters the way he once organised them in Afghanistan.
According to the former Iraqi security services colonel, 'These Saudis, Yemenis, Algerians, Syrians and Jordanians were trained for these kinds of operations and want to die. They are now working with various resistance groups whether they are religious or not.'
The bloody toll
359 dead - of which 234 died in combat (119 since end of the war) and 125 in non-combat (102 since end of the war)
51 dead - of which 19 died in combat (11 since end of the war) and 32 in non-combat (seven since end of the war)
Estimates of between 4,895 and 6,370 (unofficial thinktank estimates) total deaths during the war.
Estimates range from 7,784 to 20,000 (www.iraqbodycount.net)
Journalists and media workers
19 dead (Non-combat - accidents and friendly fire)