The war in Iraq is increasingly looking more like a showdown with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda followers than a battle primarily against Saddam Hussein loyalists.
The shift is making the fight a focal point of the U.S. global war against Islamic terrorists and one that might dictate whether the U.S. wins or loses, said a senior official and an outside expert.
"If they fail in Iraq, Osama and his whole crew are finished," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, a military author and analyst.
The changing dynamic was highlighted this week when the U.S. military launched a major offensive in western Iraq, primarily against foreign jihadists who crossed the border with Syria to join the al Qaeda network in Iraq led by Abu Musab Zarqawi. In a troubling sign, U.S. officers said Zarqawi's terrorists seemed well-trained and well-equipped.
The U.S. offensive, code named Operation Matador, entered its third day yesterday in the dusty border towns west of Baghdad near Syria. The command said three Marines and more than 100 enemy fighters have been killed.
"In the Muslim world and extremist world, this fight for Iraq is their key battle," said Gen. McInerney. "If they lose it, they lose the war. And so the imams are inciting young people, not particular well-educated, to head to Iraq. Most are going through Syria via Damascus.
"This is why Iraq is such a fundamental part of the global war on terrorism. When we finally defeat Muslim extremists, it will be the battle in Iraq that defeats them."
The war's changing nature is also illustrated by the list of the high-ranking enemy announced as captured by the new Baghdad government. Virtually all of those caught since December have been identified as lieutenants of the Jordanian-born Zarqawi, not operatives for Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Since the January elections of the new Iraqi parliament, Zarqawi's suicide terrorists have unleashed more than 100 car bombings, killing hundreds.
On the plus side for the U.S., it is receiving a record number of intelligence tips from Iraqis that have resulted in scores of captures of Zarqawi's terrorists.
But the number of arrests also present the coalition with a sobering reality. The fact that Zarqawi has in place a larger number of cell leaders and planners means that he has built up a sizable terror network since the March 2003 invasion.
"Clearly, the insurgents are more lethal, and that is a better measure than numbers," said a senior Pentagon official, who agreed that Iraq has become pivotal in the overall global war on terror. "They continue to adapt to the changes we make. They are a thinking enemy."
Outside analysts, such as Gen. McInerney, estimate that Zarqawi has as many as 2,000 operators. The Pentagon official said Zarqawi has the ability to quickly replenish his ranks once suicide jihadists kill themselves and their targets.
The constant reinforcement is one reason that the U.S. command launched Operation Matador in an attempt to flush out and kill insurgents who found safe havens in towns near Syria.
Gen. James T. Conway, the Joint Chiefs director of operations, said at the Pentagon yesterday that the battle plan called for the 2nd Regimental Combat Team to cross the Euphrates River, then set up blocking positions near the town of Rommana, as other forces flushed out insurgents.
But most foreign fighters chose to fight instead of running toward the Marine position.
"They were decisively engaged," Gen. Conway said. "A fairly significant battle followed. ... If they are intending on being martyred, that has to be cranked into the equation with this particular enemy."
He said the fighting yesterday involved Marines and soldiers finding fixed enemy positions and then hitting them with ground and air power. He said Marines received one unconfirmed sighting of Zarqawi in the past three weeks in an area between Qaim on the Syrian border and Husaybah.
A Marine officer told a Los Angeles Times reporter, "These are the professional fighters who have come from all over the Middle East. These are people who have received training and are very well-armed."
Insurgents kidnapped the governor of Al Anbar Province, Raja Nawaf Farhan al Mahalawi. They said he would not be released until U.S. forces withdraw from Qaim, the site of intermittent fighting since Baghdad fell two years ago.