- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq, has been increasingly successful at recruiting foreign suicide bombers into the country, who are quickly assigned a bomb-ladened vehicle to kill coalition members and civilians, according to senior military officials.

The officials also said a profitable market for kidnapped Westerners has emerged, adding to the violence in Iraq, as criminal gangs snatch hostages and then market them like a commodity to various Islamic jihadist groups.

Despite months of fighting an insurgency that erupted last fall, military leaders said the number of attacks in September show an increase, compared with early August, but they do not have a good enough handle on the enemy to say whether it is weaker or stronger than a year ago.

Zarqawi’s murderous ways were underscored again last week when a suicide bomber parked a car in a busy Iraqi market and pushed the ignition switch. The massive explosion killed 47 Iraqis, the worst car bombing in Baghdad since March.

“It’s clear this is Zarqawi doing these types of things to the Iraqi people,” said Rear Adm. Gregory Slavonic, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Iraq. “Zarqawi is doing the car bombings. I think he is getting more people to drive these cars who believe in his cause, and the more people you can get who believe in the cause that he has espoused to them, you can get the frequency up.”

Suicide bombers have another advantage. When they blow themselves up, they leave no potential of capturing a Zarqawi operative who could provide information on the terrorist’s organization and its links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network. “It’s hard to interrogate drivers, because they’re not usually around to talk,” Adm. Slavonic said.

Without many captives, U.S. officials have limited knowledge of Zarqawi’s cells. He relies on foreign jihadists to heed his call to come to Iraq and enlist as suicide bombers. In some cases, he can place them in a car and give them a target within days of their arrival. The exact size of his organization is unknown, but is believed to number several hundred. A Pentagon official said that at one point this summer, commanders estimated there were about 2,000 anti-coalition operatives inside Iraq representing various terror networks or criminal enterprises.

Former U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer told The Washington Timesthis summer that a captured Zarqawi bomber who failed to detonate his bomb provided some useful inside information.

“They are non-Iraqis,” Mr. Bremer said of the Zarqawi group. “They tend to be from Yemen. Or Sudan. Some Saudis. We haven’t captured a lot of them. We captured some. So we have some insight into the organization. It’s a professional terrorists organization. It’s well-done.

“They have cellular structure, so information doesn’t flow very widely. Makes it difficult to penetrate. Even if you penetrate, you don’t get much information beyond the cell you’ve penetrated. It’s a very professional operation. Very dangerous. They are clearly responsible for almost all, if not all, the suicide attacks.”

Authorities believes Zarqawi bases his operation in the rebel-infested city of Fallujah, where the United States regularly identifies a terrorist safe house and destroys it with precision bombings. Zarqawi moves around Iraq frequently and may go in and out of Jordan, his home country.

He has access to sizable sums of money that are moving into Iraq to fund his cells, as well as former members of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“He’s still building car bombs,” Adm. Slavonic said. “They’re still buying cars. Still buying weapons. … Money will buy anything. Money will buy anything you need if they believe in the cause.”

Adm. Slavonic and other officials are reluctant to say if the insurgency is any weaker today than a year ago.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered this scenario for how the coalition will eventually win.

“I use the word ‘tip.’ When does it tip?” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “At what point do the people in that country — are there enough of them giving a thumbs up to the American soldiers walking through Najaf, like they were yesterday, that more and more intelligence information comes in, more caches are exposed and captured, more terrorists are prevented and the pressure on the former regime elements is so great that they lose recruits and that tips down?

“We don’t have an insight into that. But we know what we’re doing is effective. And we know that the Iraqi people are vastly better off this year than last year.”

Asked if there is an “unending supply” of insurgents, Mr. Rumsfeld said. “Well, you’ve got a country of 25 million people. … There’s borders that are porous. That’s a hard thing for me to answer. … My guess is that they see they’re losing.”

The New York Times yesterday cited American commanders in Iraq saying they are preparing to open up rebel-held areas, such as Fallujah, as they try to secure the country for elections early next year. The report said U.N. officials are concerned that the legitimacy of the electoral process could be undermined by insecurity.

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