The U.S. military says “several thousand” foreign fighters are in Iraq, a number that has remained fairly constant in recent weeks as those killed or captured are replaced by terrorists from across the border.
The invaders, who began entering Iraq in significant numbers in the summer, have emerged as a major stumbling block to turning over political power to an interim Iraqi authority on June 30.
Once inside the country, they form cells and, in some cases, team up with local insurgents, U.S. officials said. The foreigners are the ones kidnapping Westerners and committing suicide attacks that kill hundreds. Fallujah, one of two flash points in Iraq with the southern city of Najaf, may hold up to 1,000 non-Iraqi jihadists.
“More than anything else right now all these people are coming together to make the United States fail,” said Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The idea is to attack the United States and make it weak and make this appear to be a Muslim victory. They are trying to repeat what happened in Afghanistan,” when Islamist fighters expelled the Soviet army.
Some in the Pentagon have concluded that unless the influx is stopped, true stability won’t come to Iraq. Officials said they hope that once Iraqi sovereignty is established on June 30, the jihadists will lose interest and stop entering the country.
“There are a lot of different ways to get into Iraq,” said a senior defense official, noting Iraq’s borders with Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. But the area accommodating most terrorist invaders is Syria’s 600-mile desert border through which hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of jihadists have crossed.
Military officials said the regime of President Bashar Assad facilitates foreign fighters’ movements by letting them enter Syria, giving them required papers and, at times, providing weapons before permitting them to cross into Iraq.
Damascus also allows the fighters to re-enter Syria to rest and reorganize, the officials said.
“We know that the pathway into Iraq for many foreign fighters is through Syria,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on April 18. “It’s a fact. We know it. The Syrians know it.”
Mr. Assad is not thought to have links to Osama bin Laden or his al Qaeda network. The Damascus government has helped the United States in its search for some al Qaeda operatives, but Mr. Assad also has no interest in seeing a Western-style democracy flourish across his border and perhaps jeopardize the Assad family dynasty.
President Bush has said a free Iraq promises to usher in political reform throughout the Middle East.
Once in an Iraqi city, the foreigners form cells, often linking up with indigenous insurgents, but their goals are different. Foreign jihadists want to kill “unbelievers” and impose their rigid view of Islam. The Iraqis want to restore the rule of the Ba’ath Party.
But the two camps agree on one effort: Kill Americans until they quit and go home.
The U.S.-led coalition has captured or killed foreign fighters holding citizenship from several Islamic countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.
Pentagon officials said the influx began in the summer and was followed quickly by a wave of suicide attacks. It is a deadly tactic not associated with Ba’athists, but one embraced by jihadists. Some bring weapons, while others are taken by Iraqis to extensive caches of arms.
The number of invaders, however, is not reaching the mark of tens of thousands of fighters in Afghanistan 20 years ago.
“It appears they are not coming out in the numbers al Qaeda had hoped,” Mr. Schanzer said.
He attributes the relatively small response to the United States and its allies having killed thousands of terrorists since the September 11 attacks.
“Our adversaries are having to face their own challenges,” he said.