Hussein loyalists, Islamists unite - Unlikely allies behind attacks on GIs, military says (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) By Paul Salopek FALLUJAH, Iraq 06/18/03)
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FALLUJAH, Iraq -- American officers waging a major counterinsurgency
campaign in Iraq say that the murky identity of their attackers is
slowly coming into focus, and what they see is troubling.
The continuing anti-U.S. violence in the central part of the country,
they say, appears to be the work of an unlikely but deepening
alliance between two of Iraq´s most mutually antagonistic
subcultures: secular Baath Party militants and Islamic extremists
united only by a burning hatred of America.
The militants, who have been staging an increasingly deadly series of
ambushes against U.S. troops in recent weeks, shot another American
soldier Monday in Baghdad, the U.S. Central Command said. The
soldier, from Indiana, died of his wounds early Tuesday.
And in an ominous new twist to the armed resistance in the country,
Iraqi guerrillas for the first time appear to be attacking local
officials and institutions that are collaborating with occupation
forces. On Monday night, gunmen in cars tossed grenades at Fallujah´s
courthouse and mayor´s office, the focus of U.S. reconstruction
efforts in the hostile town. There were no reports of casualties.
"The standard wisdom is that the attackers are die-hard Baathists who
have reorganized and formed underground cells," said Maj. Joffery
Watson, the intelligence officer for the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry
Division, which is policing Fallujah.
"But the fundamentalists are gaining influence," Watson said. "The
Baathists offer their military skills, but the mosques are the
rallying point. They´re the staging grounds for the attacks."
More than 370 Iraqis have been arrested since Sunday in a security
sweep code-named Operation Desert Scorpion, the second major
counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq in two weeks, the U.S. military
Scores of nighttime raids and random checkpoints have resulted in the
arrest of 215 suspected militants in the northern cities of Tikrit
and Kirkuk over the past 72 hours, Central Command said. About 150
people were detained in Baghdad, and 121 rifles, 18 rocket-propelled
grenades and 31 pounds of explosives also were seized.
The security crackdowns are a response to a series of increasingly
deadly ambushes against U.S. forces in recent weeks. They are
designed to "isolate and defeat pockets of resistance that are
seeking to delay the transition to a peaceful" Iraq, Central Command
At least 50 U.S. soldiers have died from sniping, ambushes or
accidents since major fighting ended in Iraq in April--more than a
quarter of all the deaths during the war´s combat phase.
Shot while in vehicle
The latest soldier killed was Pvt. Shawn Pahnke, 25, of Shelbyville,
Ind., who was shot late Monday afternoon as he sat in his vehicle in
northwest Baghdad, Central Command said.
So far, the U.S. operations have focused on the central and northern
parts of the country, which are viewed as traditional strongholds of
deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. And the classic case study is
A sullen farming town 37 miles west of Baghdad, Fallujah was one of
the first Iraqi communities to openly resist American forces after
Baghdad fell in April. Relations between U.S. soldiers and local
residents soured six weeks ago when troops with the 82nd Airborne
Division fatally shot 14 civilians during a protest march. The U.S.
troops said they responded after taking fire.
Today, officers trying to police the town say the residents´ penchant
for springing ambushes, sniping from mosques and signaling one
another with porch lights and flares offers perhaps the best example
of how the merging forces of nationalism and religion are coming to
define the nascent insurgent movement in central and northern Iraq.
"Many of those planning [the attacks] are Baathists, ex-army guys
who´ve lost their perks with the fall of the old regime," said Capt.
James Brownlee, a spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division. "We´re
talking about cells of 10 officers or Fedayeen Saddam militants
who´ve got their act together locally."
But according to U.S. intelligence, that act increasingly revolves
around some of Fallujah´s 46 mosques.
Militants have been spotted surreptitiously moving weapons into key
mosques, said Watson, the 3rd Infantry Division intelligence officer.
Ambushes against U.S. patrols erupt in the same neighborhood later,
The tactic is effective because U.S. forces hesitate to raid mosques
for fear of outraging Fallujah´s conservative populace. Two attacks
have come directly from mosques over the past six weeks, Watson said.
Mosques also have been used to either hide militants or store arms in
Mosul and Baghdad, U.S. military sources said.
"We used to think ´Islamist versus Baathist´ attackers," Watson
said. "Now the picture we´re getting is that they´re cooperating.
They´re one and the same."
Citing information from captured insurgents, he described a typical
ambush operation in Fallujah: "A few military guys get their
explosives on Thursday. They go to prayer services on Friday. The
imam whips them up with some inspirational jihad rhetoric. And--boom--
we´ve got an attack near the mosque Saturday night."
Such interaction would have been unthinkable before the war that
toppled Hussein, whose repressive Baath Party was built on a secular,
Though the Iraqi dictator embraced the symbols of Islam to boost his
popularity during the last years of his rule, he ruthlessly snuffed
out challenges from religious fundamentalists.
Rebellious imams from Iraq´s Shiite Muslim majority were executed,
imprisoned or exiled. Even clerics from Hussein´s Sunni sect were
carefully vetted and often silenced with threats or bought off.
Most conservative Islamists held Hussein in contempt. The most
famous, Osama bin Laden, considered Hussein´s Iraq a godless, corrupt
"The religious element saw an opportunity to co-opt the resistance
movement during the postwar chaos," Watson said. "To a large degree,
The imams at two mosques in Fallujah refused to comment. One of their
followers, a man standing outside in the roasting sun, said only that
he was awaiting orders from Ahmad al-Qubaisy, a conservative
religious sheik based in Baghdad.
"He is telling us not to hit the Americans right now," said the man,
who did not want to give his name. "But we are ready to push them out
of our town in an instant."
On the lumpy street behind him, patrolling Humvees zipped by, the
U.S. soldiers inside waving at curse-hurling children.
Even as Iraqi guerrillas chucked grenades at the office of Fallujah´s
U.S.-appointed mayor, Army engineers were pouring $100,000 worth of
repairs into the town´s dilapidated power lines, water mains and
"We´re all competing, so to speak, for the loyalties of the people of
Fallujah," said Watson, the intelligence officer. "They´ve got to
choose between the Sunni clerics and a Western-type democracy."
(Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune 06/18/03)
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