The United States declared yesterday that it is now fighting a two-front war in Iraq, one against Saddam Hussein loyalists who target American troops, the other against terrorists who are killing civilians.
“We have a security problem here,” L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. administrator for Iraq, told CBS yesterday. “The security problem now has got a terrorist dimension, which is new.”
Mr. Bremer spoke the day after a massive truck bomb exploded outside the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing at least 21 persons. Two weeks ago, terrorists had used a similar tactic against the Jordanian Embassy.
U.S. officials said the Middle East and Afghanistan have become a battleground between fundamentalist extremists and the United States and its moderate-Muslim allies.
The sources, who asked not to be named, said about 2,000 foreign fighters, some of whom could be considered international terrorists, are in Iraq, with more on the way.
Until now, the terror attacks have been limited to Baghdad and the so-called Sunni Triangle north of the capital. But intelligence reports say Iranian agents are trying to convince the Shi’ites in the south, a relatively peaceful area, to rebel and begin attacking coalition forces.
“You can’t cut the flow unless you kill them,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, a military analyst. “Anybody who thinks you can shut down the border doesn’t understand the problem.”
Mr. Bremer said, “It is a very difficult country to guard the borders. If you look at the map you can see why. They have desert in the south [and] southwest, marshes to the southeast and mountains around the rest of the country.”
While terror attacks occur, Saddam loyalists have targeted vital oil and water lines to disrupt the U.S.-led reconstruction and make life for the average Iraqi as difficult as possible. Small bands of guerrillas also are continuing to plant homemade explosives in the path of U.S. military convoys and take potshots with rocket-propelled grenades. The assaults have killed nearly 60 American troops since President Bush declared an end to major combat activity on May. 1.
The United States believes there are about 5,000 to 10,000 of these fighters, many of whom would not resist the U.S.-led coalition if more jobs became available. Leaders from the deposed Ba’ath Party are paying hundreds of dollars to young Iraqis to attack Americans.
The attacks have forced the United States into a simultaneous counterterror, counterguerrilla campaign for which commanders must constantly adjust.
U.S. soldiers early today raided a farmhouse in Abbarah, Iraq, acting on an informer’s tip that Saddam was hiding there. Five men were detained, but the deposed dictator was not among them. It was not known immediately whether the tip was false or late. The men in the house were being questioned.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that Mr. Bush talked by secure video conference hookup at his Texas ranch with Mr. Bremer and Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command.
Mr. McClellan linked the attack Tuesday to the global war on terrorism that began after the September 11 attacks.
“The terrorist attack yesterday in Baghdad only reinforced the importance of what we are doing,” Mr. McClellan said. “Iraq is critical to winning the war on terror. … These terrorists are not only enemies of the Iraqi people, they are enemies of the international community.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a tour of Latin America, said commanders have reiterated that the 140,000-strong force in Iraq is sufficient.
“At the moment, the conclusion of the responsible military officials is that the force levels are where they should be,” he said at a press conference.
Pentagon officials said yesterday that the two truck bomb attacks in as many weeks mean that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Baghdad, will have to change tactics.
Barricades will have to be erected around so-called “soft targets” to keep vehicles at a safer distance. The CIA will have to focus more assets on Iraq to try to discover attacks in the planning stages.
The most-often-mentioned terror group in Iraq is Ansar al-Islam, which operated a huge training base near the Kurdish territories in northern Iraq until allied troops destroyed it.
“It appears that a number of terrorists from the Ansar al-Islam group have reinfiltrated into Iraq,” Mr. Bremer told NBC. “We are concerned about that. We also have other foreign terrorists who have been arriving from other borders.”
Gen. Abizaid has said there are al Qaeda fighters, or their look-alikes, operating in the country as well.
Gen. McInerney said the attacks Tuesday in Baghdad and Jerusalem, coupled with weekend attacks in Afghanistan by holdouts from the ousted Taliban regime, show that Muslim radicals are getting more desperate.
He said extremist groups throughout the Arab world are watching the U.S. political scene closely in hopes that the attacks will stir up dissent, and that Mr. Bush will be forced to pull out U.S. troops.
“It’s clearly fundamentalists because they are suicide bombers,” Gen. McInerney said. “But it was a major error on their part to attack the U.N. It does show they are getting desperate. … The mullahs, Hezbollah, Hamas, all of them see this as a major threat if we’re successful.”
One step against terrorism, he said, is to “get an Iraqi face on the problem. We’ve got to get the Iraq military and the police up and let them do it. We do not need more American troops over there.”
Mr. Bremer, like Mr. McClellan, linked what is going on in Iraq to the global fight against terror.
“Right now, we’re finding it in Iraq,” he said. “We have to fight it and win it here, or we’ll have to fight it in New York or Buffalo or Chicago.”