Muslim fundamentalists from throughout the Middle East are being drawn to Iraq for a protracted guerrilla war, senior military officials said yesterday after a wave of weekend sabotage attacks.
“Far from a new Vietnam, we appear to be heading for a new Afghanistan, Somalia or Chechnya as the next battleground between Islam and the infidels,” said one official in Washington.
As he spoke fires still raged on a broken oil pipeline in northern Iraqi and youths bathed in the water gushing from a sabotaged water conduit in Baghdad.
An oil pipeline fire contines to burn after being sabotaged at the weekend.
The latest assaults in Iraq, which included a seemingly random mortar attack on a jail in which six Iraqis died and 59 were wounded, seemed designed to cause havoc and sow discontent against coalition forces in Iraq. “By taking on civilian targets as well as military the terrorists are pursuing a two-pronged strategy in demoralising troops while building public discontent,” said Jonathan Stevenson, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Contrary to President George W Bush’s assertion this month that “Iraq is more secure” than at any time since the war, General John Abizaid, who took over in July from Tommy Franks as the US military commander in Iraq, conceded that resistance had intensified.
“They are better co-ordinated now, less amateurish and their ability to use improvised explosive devices, combined with tactical activity, is more sophisticated,” he said.
Resistance fighters speak of operating in cells of five or six members, of being recruited at religious gatherings and of lying low until they receive a call to act. Their aim: to create a new Islamic state, without Saddam Hussein, but equally authoritarian. As targets are broadened, from military to civilian, claims by Washington that the numbers of foreign fighters in the Iraqi resistance are growing have gained credence.
The change in tactics suggests that guerrillas from abroad have grown in influence in recent weeks.
Gen Richard B Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the US ground forces in Iraq, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, have all suggested that foreign terrorists were an increasing problem for American forces.
Sceptics suggested that this could be an attempt to alienate Iraq’s civilian population from the resistance by suggesting that it was being infiltrated by non-Iraqis.
But more than 70 foreign fighters were reported killed last month in a US military assault on a terrorist training camp in the desert west of Baghdad. Local townspeople confirmed that the fighters were from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
“Iraq is now the central battle in the war on terrorism,” Mr Wolfowitz told the Fox television network.
Of particular concern to America is the attraction of Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, which is gaining a foothold in Iraq. Wahhabi mosques, funded by Saudi wealth, are becoming centres of opposition to America.
In June, US special forces arrested 15 Saudi Wahhabis and captured a huge supply of weapons and ammunition.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s tens of thousands of Muslims volunteered to fight the invader.
Trained in neighbouring Pakistan, they were financed and armed by the CIA. When the Russians withdrew, the so-called “Afghan Arabs” remained to form the basis of what became al-Qa’eda.
Others went on to fight for Islamic causes from Bosnia to Chechnya. Iraq is their new cause celebre.