Ex-Baathists Play Crucial Insurgent Role, U.S. Says
U.S. military commanders say a new assessment of the Iraqi insurgency has led them to focus on 34 former Baath Party leaders who they believe are financing and directing attacks against American troops and their allies.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid and other senior Defense officials interviewed in Iraq said much of the insurgent violence was being carried out by a network of regional cells that loosely coordinate their operations with former officials of Saddam Hussein’s ruling party.
Insurgent leaders often operate out of Syria and Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, officials said.
“There is a level of tactical coordination and direction that still comes from the remnants of the Baath Party, and I believe a certain amount of this tactical coordination effort is orchestrated from Syria,” said Abizaid, the Central Command chief who is directing the war in Iraq.
Military officials have conceded that they have limited information on the insurgency due to a lack of reliable intelligence reports. In some cases, unconfirmed tips have come from questionable sources. In others, the information is too dated to allow U.S. forces to track suspected insurgent leaders, officials said.
But military leaders said they had been receiving more tips on the insurgency and higher-quality reports in recent weeks.
“We have focused the intelligence system on these 34 guys in the belief that if there is an emerging leadership structure for the former regime element movement that these 34 guys will be holding the reins,” said another senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The new information has allowed military strategists to better discern the face of the insurgency, officials said, and has painted a portrait of guerrillas led by former regime officials who are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
U.S. military officials say recent evidence suggested that former members of Hussein’s elite fighting units have been involved in attacks on U.S. troops.
“We see that a lot of the attacks that are going on right now show evidence that they were planned and executed by those who had a military background,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, a deputy to Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. “There are some former Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard that are involved in these attacks.”
U.S. military officials say the insurgency appears to lack a central leader, although they believe that former Gen. Izzat Ibrahim, one of Hussein’s top aides, has directed many attacks against the U.S.-led coalition in the Tikrit area.
“There are former regime element organizational meetings. But there is no sort of grand pooh-bah that sits atop of this thing. There’s no Saddam-like figure to whom they have allegiance and who is in overall charge of the insurgency,” a senior defense official said.
Citing intelligence reports, senior U.S. military officials said Ibrahim and other former Baath Party members met near the Syrian border in November to plan strategy.
Also present at that meeting, officials said, were Mahdi Nasr Ubeidi, who supervises financial dealings; Mohammed Younis, who has acted as Ibrahim’s assistant from a base east of Baghdad; Ahmed Hassan Kaka, an insurgent leader in the northern city of Kirkuk; Ramadan Zaidan Jaburi, Kaka’s assistant; Mohammed Rijab Haddushi Nasser, the leader of the group’s operations in Tikrit and nearby Baiji; and Yassir Sabawi Ibrihim Hassan, a courier.
The Baathist leaders are believed to be financing the insurgency with billions of dollars that Hussein officials allegedly grabbed from government coffers in the final days before the government fell, officials said.
Abizaid and other military strategists believe that leaders of these groups also determine tactics to be used against coalition and Iraqi forces.
U.S. efforts to find insurgent leaders have been hampered by Syria, officials said.
“We have been very clear to the Syrians about our unhappiness about Baathist cells operating from Syria. They have access to money, and they have access to smuggling routes,” Abizaid said.
The Bush administration has been sternly warning Syria to stop the movement of fighters and smugglers across its borders and crack down on militants using its territory. This month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage visited the Syrian capital, Damascus, to deliver that message as well as other U.S. demands.
Congress has voted to impose sanctions on Syria, but the administration has so far picked the mildest penalty authorized by the law. The president has hinted at a tougher stance, but Armitage told U.S.-run Al Hurra television that Bush had not yet made a decision.
“He’s waiting to see the outcome of Syrian behavior over a length of time and then will make a decision on what to do,” Armitage said.
Syrian officials based in Washington could not be reached for comment but have said in response to earlier criticism that they have redoubled efforts to police their borders in response to concerns from the interim Iraqi government and the Bush administration.
It remains unclear exactly how closely the Baathist-led groups coordinate with foreign Islamic extremists such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has proclaimed himself the leader of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization in Iraq. But the two groups are believed to communicate and work together at least loosely in what officials describe as a temporary marriage of convenience.
“I think there is a level of coordination between Zarqawi and some of the Baathist cells,” Abizaid said. “There is a certain amount of coordination at a rudimentary level that goes on within Iraq. And there is certainly an organizational network within the Zarqawi terrorist network that shows an ability to organize terrorist activities across a broad range of targets in Iraq.”
Abizaid warned that former regime leaders who ally themselves with extremists will not be offered amnesty even if they surrendered their arms.
Most of the leaders are probably not capable of rehabilitation anyway, a senior military official said. “There are a number of people that are going to have to die,” the official said. “Zarqawi is one of them. He’s in the box. His name’s on the list, and you only come off it one way.”
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.