Zarqawi Reportedly Called for Shift in Strategy

Times Staff Writer

Militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi met with heads of Iraqi insurgent groups in Syria a month ago and called for a shift in strategy against Iraqi and American forces by increasing suicide car bombings, a senior U.S. military official said Wednesday.

The official said that shortly after the meeting, held just inside the Syrian border, insurgents unleashed dozens of car bombs throughout Iraq as part of a wave of violence that in recent weeks has killed more than 450 people. The official’s comments on Zarqawi could not be independently verified, and it was not known how U.S. forces gleaned information about a clandestine insurgent meeting.

So far this month, there have been 21 car bombings in Baghdad. That compares with about 25 attacks of that type here in all of 2004. Since Feb. 27, according to the U.S. military, 126 car bombs have either exploded or been defused in the capital.

“Zarqawi was not happy with how the insurgency was going,” said the official, who declined to be identified. U.S. officials say that Zarqawi’s emphasis on vehicle bombs suggests a frustration among extremists attempting to sustain a war against 140,000 U.S. troops and a growing Iraqi army.


The senior U.S. official asserted that several intelligence sources reported that Zarqawi and various guerrilla leaders had attended at least five meetings in Syria and western Iraq over the last year. There was no indication that the Syrian government was aware of the gatherings, the official said.

Asked if the Iraqi government was equipped to deal with the insurgency and an increasingly frightened and disillusioned public, the U.S. military man struck a less upbeat tone than that usually offered by American officials. He said a democratic Iraq was likely to succeed, but added, “I think it could still fail,” and that the country could veer back into civil war and chaos.

In a message posted on an Islamic website Wednesday and attributed to Zarqawi, the militant leader sought to justify the car bombings that multiplied after the new Iraqi government named its Cabinet on April 28.

“The killing of infidels by any method including martyrdom [suicide] operations has been sanctified by many Islamic scholars even if it means killing innocent Muslims. This legality has been agreed upon ... so as not to disrupt jihad,” he said.

The insurgents, according to the U.S. military official, “are listening to what [Zarqawi] said.”

When asked if the insurgency was becoming more formidable, the official added: “I don’t think they’re gaining strength. I think they’re changing their techniques.”

The official’s comments came amid a two-day lull in bombings after sweeps by the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad and a Marine offensive along the Syrian border that U.S. commanders said killed about 125 fighters. Nine Marines also died and 40 were injured in the weeklong operation.

The rebels’ increased reliance on car bombs complicates the new Iraqi government’s handling of the war as it struggles with a surge in assassinations of public officials and sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslim Arabs. Gunmen firing from a sedan Wednesday killed Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Khamas, a senior police official with the Iraqi Interior Ministry, as he was driving in southeast Baghdad.


The U.S. military official said it was unclear to American forces whether “tit for tat” slayings between religious groups foreshadowed a civil war or signaled the reemergence of clan animosities that were contained by Saddam Hussein’s police state.

“It’s hard for us to see right now,” said the official, although he later acknowledged he has sensed rising prejudice among religious and political leaders.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born Sunni, attempted to increase tensions in the website message. He assailed Iraqi Shiites who control the new government for collaborating with the U.S.

“Throughout history,” Zarqawi said, “there have been many battles and now we have a new chapter in the land of two rivers [Iraq] -- the Christian infidels who are torturing this country and its holy sites with the help of their brothers, the infidel Shiite, who when there is a war against Islam always become the knife against Islam.”


The military official said the insurgency in Baghdad encompasses several groups that sometimes join forces but don’t follow a single leader. The factions, he said, include Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda-inspired militants, former Hussein regime elements, Sunni radicals, Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia and disparate criminals. When these factions have come together, they have inflicted sizable casualties.

Army Gen. John P. Abizaid said the failure by Iraqi police forces to quickly take on greater responsibilities will prevent any reduction of the U.S. contingent in Iraq. During an interview in Washington, he added that some Sunni militants were “playing both sides” by attempting to join the political process while working with the insurgency.

“It’s my impression that the majority of insurgents that are fighting continue to be Iraqis,” said Abizaid, the top general directing U.S. forces in Iraq. “People are killing their own people for no good reason that I can see other than to gain political advantage.”

The military official in Baghdad said recent arrests of 1,100 suspected militants and discoveries at bombing sites had given U.S. forces information about the insurgent arsenal, which has long included suicide car bombs.


But it remains unclear what proportion of the vehicles carrying bombs are driven by foreign fighters, he said. It is also difficult to gauge how many assailants think they have been dispatched to park a car bomb, unaware that once they reach the destination the device will be remotely detonated, the official said.

Many Iraqis, the military official observed, have become frustrated by the inability of the new leadership to stop attacks and impose order in Baghdad. The euphoria that followed the January election is beginning to wither, according to a recent Baghdad University survey. Only 45% of the Iraqis polled believed the government would get stronger within three months.

Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi said Monday that the suicide bomb attacks on civilians indicated the insurgency was foundering.

“Terrorists in Iraq are living their final days due to the intensified security measures which pushed them to commit such attacks that caused casualties among Iraqi civilians,” Dulaimi said at a news conference.


A Western diplomat said this month that insurgents may have been stockpiling car bombs. “Now they’ve launched them on us. My expectation will be that [soon] you will see a significant drop in violence, because I don’t think they can sustain this.”


Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Baghdad and John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.