The U.S. is seeing significantly fewer foreign fighters on the battlefields of Iraq, because the coalition has killed or captured scores of terrorists in recent months and is doing a better job of securing the long border with Syria.
But the U.S. military has noticed in recent weeks a willingness of young Iraqis to become suicide bombers, once the monopoly of ideologically driven foreign jihadists
“We are killing them,” a senior Pentagon official said yesterday, when asked about shrinking foreign-fighter numbers in Iraq.
The trend is one reason that the Bush administration is talking more confidently about reducing the American troop presence next year to less than a base level of 138,000. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the current 160,000 level will revert to 138,000 after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
Defense sources said the deployment of newly emerging Iraqi brigades along the Syria border and better aerial surveillance has slowed the flow of foreigners.
“It appears there has been a downturn, and that is partly due to increased security along the border with Syria,” said a U.S. counterintelligence official, who asked not to be named. “Syria was the primary entry point for most of those foreign fighters. Stepped-up efforts to stem the flow is having an impact.”
But a smaller pool of suicide bombers has forced the foreign fighters’ main leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, to recruit iraqis, and some are enlisting, the counterterrorism official said.
The starkest evidence of this troubling new development is that Iraqi suicide bombers carried out the Amman, Jordan, hotel bombings.
Foreign fighters, who are affiliated with Zarqawi’s terror group al Qaeda in Iraq, make up the smallest of the three main insurgent groups fighting U.S. forces. But they are the most lethal, responsible for the mass killings of Shi’ites and other civilians via car bombs targeting schools, mosques, markets, hotels and cafes.
U.S. officials always have had a difficult time estimating the number of Zarqawi’s terrorists in Iraq, giving ranges of several thousand up to 10,000.
The counterterrorism official said current estimates put the number from the “high hundreds” to “somewhere over 1,000.”
“The numbers are not exact,” the official said. “Definitely, there has been a downturn.”
U.S. officials who have served in Iraq say Zarqawi runs a gruesomely efficient terror organization. Members operate in small cells, moving from town to town and house to house as they build car-borne bombs and train new suicide attackers. One official said that in a matter of days, al Qaeda members can recruit a new terrorist, affix him with a bomb and assign him a target.
But there have been signs of disenchantment within the organization. An intercepted letter from a top Zarqawi lieutenant in Mosul complained about a lack of money and experienced terrorists. U.S. military commanders have said that some of those captured say they were misled by recruiters about what America is trying to accomplish in Iraq.
In a recent briefing, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said coalition troops have killed more than 100 members of al Qaeda in Iraq in recent months.
Zarqawi “still has capabilities, including recruiting suicide bombers,” Gen. Lynch said. “The forces will continue their operations and fight their way to the elections to deny him these capabilities.”
Lt. Gen. John Vines, the U.S. tactical commander in Iraq, declined to provide a “body count,” but said a series of counterinsurgency sweeps are taking a toll on the enemy.
“What we do see indicators of are the numbers of foreign fighters that are showing up in a variety of venues, and we believe those numbers are significantly less, perhaps is less than half as many as they were in the summer,” Gen. Vines said. “We see evidence that we’re making considerable progress in that regard.”
A U.S. intelligence official said, “A lot of these people should not be called foreign fighters. They should be called ‘foreign ordnances’ because they blow themselves up. They don’t fight.”