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More Iraqis Lured to Al Qaeda Group

Times Staff Writers

Al Qaeda’s top operative in Iraq is drawing growing numbers of Iraqi nationals to his organization, increasing the reach and threat of an insurgent group that has been behind many of the most devastating attacks in the country, U.S. officials and Iraqi government leaders say.

The group, headed by Jordanian-born radical Abu Musab Zarqawi, previously was composed almost exclusively of militants from other Arab nations, and has symbolized the foreign dimension of a stubborn insurgency fighting to oust U.S. forces.

But Zarqawi “is bringing more and more Iraqi fighters into his fold,” a U.S. official said, adding that Iraqis accounted for “more than half his organization.”

Although Zarqawi is believed to command fewer than 1,000 fighters, the daring and lethal nature of their attacks, coupled with Zarqawi’s links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, has made him the most notorious figure in the Iraq insurgency.

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The U.S. has set a $25-million bounty on Zarqawi, whose organization has been behind a series of beheadings, suicide bombings and other gruesome attacks.

Zarqawi’s faction has claimed responsibility for a bombing campaign this week that has left at least 169 dead in Baghdad, apparently in reprisal for a U.S.-Iraqi campaign against insurgents in the northern city of Tall Afar. One of the car bombers reportedly lured day laborers to his vehicle by posing as an employer. It was unclear whether he was Iraqi.

Details of a growing Iraqi dimension to Zarqawi’s group were provided by three U.S. officials with access to classified intelligence data and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Their comments reflect the government’s latest attempt to come to grips with a multi-layered insurgency that has often confounded U.S. forces and intelligence agencies.

The U.S. officials indicated that the infusion of Iraqis, including, apparently, former members of the Iraqi intelligence service and military, represented a change in the group’s makeup rather than a major expansion.

A significant Iraqi presence in the Zarqawi group carries ominous implications, both for the Bush administration and the fledgling, popularly elected government it supports in Baghdad.

The Iraqis under Zarqawi’s wing could provide him with better intelligence, and give legitimacy to a group viewed by many Iraqis as unwanted outsiders. In addition, Iraqi recruits are being exposed to the workings of a highly efficient extremist group.

The influx of Iraqis also would diminish the effect of any tightening of border controls -- a key Bush administration objective -- on the insurgency’s strength.

U.S. intelligence in Iraq has frequently been wrong. However, two factors add credence to the reports of the shifting composition of Zarqawi’s group: Several of his senior lieutenants have been captured by U.S. forces in recent months and some reportedly have talked extensively under interrogation.

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Senior Iraqi officials reported seeing the same development.

Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq’s national security advisor and a former Shiite activist, said “there’s no doubt” that once-nationalistic elements of the insurgency were drifting toward Zarqawi and his extremist Salafi sect, also known as Wahhabism, which seeks to establish a puritanical society modeled on early Islamic times.

“There’s a tendency to religion-ize the insurgency,” he said. “Religion is a strong motive. You’re not going to find someone who’s going to die for Baathists. But Salafists have a very strong message.

“If you use the Koran selectively, it could be a weapon of mass destruction.”

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Few Iraqis appear to share Zarqawi’s goal of establishing a radical Islamic state, but small numbers of Iraqi hard-liners apparently are attracted by the effectiveness of Zarqawi’s group.

“They’re the best game in town, the most organized organization,” said a U.S. official, who added that Zarqawi’s network was also a “well-funded organization that is willing to pay people for their work” when many Iraqis, particularly police, have little or no income.

The officials noted that police in three cities, including Mosul, are not being paid. They declined to name the others.

Officials said it was not clear how dedicated these Iraqis were to the broader Al Qaeda cause, or whether they would be willing to travel outside the country to carry out terrorist attacks in Arab or Western nations.

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Zarqawi escaped capture in February near the city of Ramadi, authorities say. He fled on foot as coalition forces at a checkpoint intercepted a truck containing a laptop and documents. Coalition forces since have killed or captured several of his lieutenants. The latest such incident was announced Sept. 9, when a U.S. military official said a high-level aide had been killed in western Iraq.

But the U.S. officials who are familiar with intelligence on Zarqawi’s group said the organization had proved remarkably resilient and was organized to withstand losses of key leaders, including Zarqawi.

One of the officials noted that coalition forces thought they had delivered a major blow in January with the capture of Zarqawi’s principal bomb maker in the capital. But since then, the official said, “car bombs are way up in Baghdad.”

Overall, the officials said, the insurgency in Iraq is divided into three “clumps”: religious extremists such as Zarqawi; former members of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein; and disparate Iraqi groups acting out of local or national interests.

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The officials described a steady flow of Saudis, Yemenis and other Arab nationals into -- and, in some cases, out of -- the country. But officials said foreign fighters accounted for less than 10% of the insurgents in Iraq.

Zarqawi’s reported success in recruiting Iraqis to his cause comes as frustration is mounting among the minority Sunni Arabs, who fear they will be marginalized in the new Iraq and are prepared to fight its emergence.

The CIA and other agencies have resisted pressure to provide an estimate of the number of insurgents in Iraq, partly out of concern that it would foster the impression that there is a finite population that can be stamped out.

Rather, officials said intelligence analysts had noted that there were about 800,000 to 1 million Iraqi Sunni Arab men of military age who represent the pool of potential insurgents. How many might turn to violence depends on several factors, starting with the extent to which Sunnis are satisfied with their stake in any new government.

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Some Sunnis have objected to the draft constitution that is to be presented to Iraqis in a national referendum next month. The community’s sense of estrangement could be heightened if the document is passed, as is likely, over its objections.

“They’re going to be extremely disappointed when they fail, and they’re going to believe this is the result of fraud and being cheated out of what they deserve,” one of the U.S. officials said. “There’s going to be some real ratcheting up of Sunni disaffection with the process.”

The trial of Hussein, to begin next month, is also likely to add to a sense of victimization among Sunnis, analysts say.

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Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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