Monday, February 9, 2004

Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq are failing to entice Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims into a bloody civil war and are discouraged by America’s resolve to stick it out in Baghdad, U.S. officials said yesterday.

“The Iraqi people have demonstrated time after time that they are unwilling to participate in any of these activities by and large,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for coalition operations in Iraq. “They are looking forward to a free, united and sovereign Iraq.”

Gen. Kimmitt’s remarks came after the New York Times reported on a memo seized in a coalition raid and believed to have been written by Abu Musab Zarqawi. A Palestinian traveling on a Jordanian passport, Zarqawi is described as al Qaeda’s top man in Iraq, directing attacks on Americans and Iraqis.

Before the war, he operated out of the Ansar al-Islam terror training camp in northern Iraq and ran similar camps in Afghanistan.

In the unsigned memo, the writer expresses disappointment on two crucial issues: The Americans refuse to give up and leave Iraq despite taking daily casualties; and the majority Shi’ites and once-powerful Sunni sects so far have not engaged in a civil war that would destabilize the emerging government.

“We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like what has happened in so many lands of jihad,” the memo states, according to the Times. “Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. … By God, this is suffocation.”

The memo states that Zarqawi’s strategy is to continue to kill Shi’ites in hopes they will vent their anger against Sunnis still loyal to captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“We have to get to the zero hour in order to openly begin controlling the land by night, and after that by day, God willing,” the writer says. “The zero hour needs to be at least four months before the new government gets in place.”

The United States has set a July 1 timetable for turning over power to an elected interim government.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited Zarqawi in his prewar speech to the United Nations as evidence of al Qaeda links to Saddam’s regime.

Of the memo, Mr. Powell said yesterday, “It certainly lends, I think, some credence to what we said at the U.N. last year, that he was active in Iraq and doing things that should have been known to the Iraqis. And we’re still looking for those connections and to prove those connections.”

He said the writings “describe the weaknesses that they have in their efforts to undercut the coalition’s efforts, but at the same time it shows they haven’t given up.”

Meanwhile, Washington scholars back from a trip to the region said some Ansar al-Islam fighters have found refuge in Iran.

Jonathan Schanzer, a specialist in radical Islamic movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also said other Ansar al-Islam operatives shifted their base from northern Iraq to the country’s center to focus attacks on coalition and Iraqi targets.

Mr. Schanzer, who traveled the length of the country by car, said the operatives have established multiple small cells in Iraq’s troubled Sunni Triangle.

“They represent the infrastructure of al Qaeda right now in Iraq,” he said. “It seems as if they had a contingency plan in place to relocate to the south.”

Based in the Kurdish north before Saddam fell, Ansar al-Islam included Iraqi Kurds as well as militants from around the Muslim world. They regularly fought with Iraq’s pro-U.S. Kurdish political parties.

Mr. Schanzer said Iraqi and U.S. border patrols report capturing three to 10 foreign “jihadists” a week attempting to cross into Iraq.

“Those are the ones who get caught,” he said. “We don’t know how many manage to slip through.”

Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda cells in central Iraq tend to be small and decentralized, he said. Intelligence officials and prisoners interrogated by coalition authorities say Abu Wa’il, a former military officer under Saddam, has taken a leading role in directing terrorist training and operations in central Iraq.

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