U.S. Faces Phalanx of Dangerous, Destabilizing Groups in Iraq
Sunday 18 May 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) Pro-Iranian paramilitaries. Afghan Islamic militants with suspected al-Qaida links. Feuding Kurdish factions, tribal militants and criminal gangs.
The United States may have routed Saddam Hussein's army, but it still faces an array of dangerous groups it wants to neutralize, co-opt or eliminate in Iraq.
Some ''bad actors,'' as the U.S. military calls them, were active before Saddam's regime fell. Others are scrambling to fill the current power vacuum, plying a confused citizenry with wild promises and recruitment pitches.
As weapons from looted armories fuel a thriving black market, the risk of armed conflict among these groups or between them and U.S.-led coalition forces is an uncomfortable prospect. Porous borders, especially the 906-mile frontier with Iran, make infiltration and smuggling easy.
''We can't be everywhere all at once. Until the Iraqi security apparatus is up, we'll be chasing these guys around,'' says Maj. Robert Walter, an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army's V Corps.
Ranked by the U.S. military as potentially the most disruptive force is the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
With as many as 9,000 well-armed fighters, the Badr Brigade fought Saddam's regime but remained on the sidelines when the Americans toppled it. The brigade and the council, headed by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, oppose the American presence in Iraq but have not confronted U.S. troops.
Instead, the brigade stepped up its own war-within-a-war against the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian group fighting the clerical government in Teheran.
Labeled a terrorist organization by Washington, the 6,000-strong Mujahedeen Khalq is currently disarming after U.S. troops earlier this month ordered it to lay down arms or face annihilation.
Robin Leeds, an analyst with the U.S.-based think tank Globalsecurity.org, calls SCIRI ''a very frightening component on a clear mission to undermine the U.S.''
Groups like SCIRI, she says, may use a two-pronged strategy, taking part in Iraq's interim government while struggling for dominance through subversive means.
Al-Hakim returned from 23 years in exile this month. He has made no overt anti-American statements made clear he advocates an Iraq free of American oversight.
A worst-case scenario from the American viewpoint: Backed by Iran, SCIRI and its paramilitaries entrench themselves among the Shiites of southern Iraq, working to establish an Iranian-style theocracy.
''Religious fundamentalists, especially those directed from Iran, present the most dangerous threat to any form of democracy,'' Leeds said.
Shiites, who comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's population, were an underclass under Saddam's Sunni-dominated rule. They are split into a number of factions, with some advocating cooperation with the U.S.-led administration and others clearly antagonistic to it.
Among Sunni Muslims, extremist Wahhabists have become the focus of growing American attention. Disciples of an 18th-century fundamentalist, Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab, Wahhabists preach an austere Islam as they envision it existed in the days of the religion's birth 14 centuries ago.
Experts say Wahhabists, banned by Saddam, may attempt to cast themselves as protectors of the Sunnis, the minority that ruled Iraq since its inception in the 1920s. Wahhabism arose in and continues to greatly influence Muslims in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which is closely watching developments in postwar Iraq.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq, the rivalry between Kurdish parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is an explosive factor, along with a struggle for control of the oil city of Kirkuk.
Minor clashes between the KDP and PUK have already occurred, though their leaders are part of a group expected to form the core of a new U.S.-sponsored Iraqi government.
Once brutalized by Saddam's regime, Iraq's 3.5 million Kurds lived semi-independently for the past decade thanks to a protective no-fly zone enforced by the United States, Britain and France. Now they are expected to press for considerable autonomy.
Although there have been periods of coexistence, the KDP and the PUK have been at each other's throats for years and have carved out zones of control.
As part of his war against the Kurds, Saddam offered refuge to an orthodox Islamic group, Ansar al-Islam, in exchange for its commitment to fight the PUK.
Washington has linked the group to al-Qaida and during the war, U.S. Special Forces drove it into Iran. But intelligence reports indicate that several hundred have regrouped and infiltrated back into Iraq.
Emerging as a cohesive organization in 2001, Ansar al-Islam includes Arabs of various nationalities, many of them trained in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Their strict code bars women from education and employment, bans music and television and forces men to grow beards.
Still other groups churn in this volatile brew: feuding clans, assorted local strongmen, suspected Yemeni terrorists, leftover Arab volunteers who came to help Saddam, and emerging crime syndicates.
Walter, the intelligence analyst, believes remnants of the former ruling Baath Party flush with cash and weapons may migrate into the criminal underworld.
''They were the elite, used to privilege, luxury and leisure, and they want to keep up that lifestyle,'' he said. ''They have the contacts and the networks.''
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