Sunday, July 13, 2003

FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. officials say they are concerned about growing activity by Wahhabi Muslim groups in this center of anti-American disturbances, some of whom may have direct or indirect backing from factions in Saudi Arabia.

The activity coincides with more-benign charitable work in the area by the government of Saudi Arabia, home of the Wahhabi movement.

“We realize there is some Saudi activity and involvement, and we’ve basically told them ‘cut it out,’” said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Wahhabism, an extreme form of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia, was practiced by all 19 of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks, according to recent remarks by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Kyle described Wahhabism to The Washington Times this month as “a separatist, exclusionary and violent form of Islam” and said it was the source of the “overwhelming majority of terrorist atrocities in today’s world.”

U.S. officials said they had no tangible evidence linking the Saudi groups in Fallujah to Sunni Muslim groups in Iraq, some of whom long allied themselves with the former regime of Saddam Hussein and are suspected in almost-daily attacks on U.S. forces in majority-Sunni areas around Baghdad.

But Capitol Hill sources told The Times this month that a congressional probe had focused on unpublished U.S. intelligence information stating that Wahhabi agents from Saudi Arabia were responsible for some terrorist attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

Official Saudi government involvement in the region consists mainly of charity work. The Riyadh government was the first one allowed by coalition forces to open a medical unit offering free treatment to Iraqis.

The “Saudi Hospital” is officially run by the country’s Red Crescent Society. But while it has 10 doctors and 20 others identified as technicians, some 500 army and air force officers are protecting the facility.

The center has treated some 66,000 Iraqi patients, operated on many wounded by explosions, and has transferred a few patients to Saudi Arabia for more-complex surgery, according to the center’s officials.

Through an agreement with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, Saudi Arabia has also sent 960 tons of food to cities and villages in boxes marked, “A Gift from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Brotherly People of Iraq.”

Some Iraqis worry, however, that there may be an ulterior motive behind the gifts.

“We have told the Americans to watch out for this type of behavior,” said a senior Kurdish official who asked not to be identified.

“The Saudis are known for doing this, and they tried this in [the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq]. They would come in as a charity. They help you. They give you food and money. Then they say, ‘If you memorize this much of the Koran, I’ll pay you this much.’

“Next month, they’ll double the money if you memorize twice as much as the first month. Then they’ll offer to give you more money if you grow a beard. Before you know it, you are a fundamentalist,” said the Kurdish official.

The Wahhabi activity is of particular concern because it is concentrated in Fallujah, which has been a hotbed of anti-American activity since dozens of protesters were killed or wounded by U.S. troops at the end of April.

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