The battle for the city of Fallouja is giving U.S. military commanders some insight into this country’s insurgency, painting a portrait of a home-grown uprising dominated by Iraqis, not foreign fighters.
Of the more than 1,000 men between the ages of 15 and 55 who were captured in intense fighting in the center of the insurgency over the last week, just 15 are confirmed foreign fighters, Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. ground commander in Iraq, said Monday.
There was evidence that an organized force of foreign fighters was present. One dead guerrilla bore Syrian identification. A number of insurgents believed to be foreigners wore similar black “uniforms,” each with black flak vests, webbed gear and weapons superior to those of their Iraqi allies.
But despite an intense focus on the network of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi by U.S. and Iraqi officials, who have insisted that most Iraqis support the country’s interim government, American commanders said their best estimates of the proportion of foreigners among their enemies is about 5%.
The overwhelming majority of insurgents, several senior commanders said, are drawn from the tens of thousands of former government employees whose sympathies lie with the toppled regime of Saddam Hussein, unemployed “criminals” who find work laying roadside bombs for about $500 each and Iraqi religious extremists.
“Over time, it’s the former regime elements that are the threat,” said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Casey for a visit to bases in Baghdad and outside Fallouja before meeting with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Before the battle, U.S. officials frequently stressed the role of foreign fighters in Fallouja. Last week, as the battle got underway, Myers told reporters that the city was “a major safe haven for former regime elements and foreign fighters, in particular Zarqawi and his folks.”
It was not clear how many foreign fighters might have slipped out of Fallouja before the U.S. military began its assault early last week and how many may still be fighting in the southern neighborhoods of the city, where clashes continue.
A loose coalition of foreign and domestic fighters has shown few signs of a centralized command, said senior American defense officials. The Iraqi government and the U.S. military telegraphed the Fallouja offensive with calls for civilians to leave the guerrilla stronghold. But despite those early warnings, the insurgents failed to cut off military supply routes and to reinforce isolated fighters, Myers said.
“There is not someone in charge,” Casey said. “There’s collaboration between the Islamic extremists, between the foreign fighters and between the former regime elements. And it’s a marriage of convenience.”
U.S. forces also have found large caches of arms in Fallouja containing a wide variety of weapons, including car bombs ready to be deployed, bomb factories and heavy weapons, scattered among houses, businesses and other buildings.
Commanders cautioned that identifying foreign militants is no exact science. Of the 3,000 fighters that some officials believe were holed up in the city at the dawn of the battle, by U.S. estimates at least 1,600 are dead. However, estimates of the death toll among insurgents have varied widely; many bodies remain hidden in rubble or have not yet been recovered in the streets.
Most of the insurgents “sanitized” themselves, officials said, removing identification and clues to their nationality.
“It’s hard to tell,” Casey said. American, Iraqi and British troops “are resorting to looking at the Korans in their back pocket and trying to figure out where it was published to try to get some sense of nationality.”
Allawi acknowledged in an interview Monday that the insurgents were largely made up of his countrymen, but continued to assert that foreign fighters had often been responsible for suicide car bombings and other spectacular attacks that he said were designed to derail elections scheduled for January.
“We don’t have exact numbers and exact figures, but always the foreign elements, terrorists, are used for something else” than the tasks chosen for Iraqi insurgents, Allawi said, citing car bombings in particular. “The terrorists are trying to hurt the multinational force and us, to disrupt the police, to disrupt the army, the national guard.”
He called those assaults a national “campaign of intimidation.”
Allawi has firsthand knowledge of that campaign. Three members of his family were recently kidnapped by insurgents. The two female relatives were released Sunday, Iraqi officials confirmed, but a male cousin remained in insurgent hands.
“The insurgents will kidnap family members, they will murder government officials. They will murder police. We have found that some of the most effective leaders in the national guard or the Iraqi police are murdered or assassinated,” said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division. “I think we’re seeing right now the last stand of the real hard-liners.”
The insurgents’ goal, added Casey, is to keep minority Sunni Muslims -- many of whom sympathize with Saddam Hussein, their former Sunni president -- from participating in the January election process, undermining its legitimacy.
“They’ve had to go to the intimidation to keep the Sunni from participating in the political process, because they were losing,” Casey said.
U.S. and Iraqi strategists plan to respond by supplementing Iraqi police with Iraqi national guard or army troops, possibly supported by U.S. forces.
The foreign fighters that have joined the insurgency appear to have largely crossed through Syria, military officials said. A small number of Syrians have been captured, along with two Moroccans caught on the first night of the offensive last week. A campaign of intimidation has prompted Iraqi border guards to abandon their posts, U.S. defense officials said.
Iraqi government and American authorities alike blame the Syrian government.
“It’s hard to believe Syria doesn’t know it’s going on,” Myers said.
“Whether or not they’re supporting it is another question. That said, you could say if Syria wanted to stop it they could stop it, or stop it partially.”
At the urging of U.S. forces, the Iraqi government shut down the border crossing to Syria at the western Iraqi city of Qusaybah and allowed only commercial vehicles to pass at one Syrian crossing and one Jordanian site, Natonski said. Men of fighting age have not been allowed to cross, he added.