Global Policy Forum

Extent of Foreign Fighters in Iraqi Insurgency


By Jim Krane

Associated Press
May 3, 2004

U.S. officials have for months publicly promoted the notion that foreign fighters and terrorists are playing a major role in the anti-American insurgency in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq. By blaming foreigners, U.S. authorities hope to quash the idea that Iraqis are rising up against military occupation and frame the conflict as part of the wider war on terror. However, foreigners play a tiny role in Iraq's insurgency, many military experts say.

In Fallujah, U.S. military leaders say around 90 percent of the 1,000 or more fighters battling the Marines are Iraqis. To date, there have been no confirmed U.S. captures of foreign fighters in Fallujah - although a handful of suspects have been arrested. Those who have spent time inside Fallujah have described a city consumed with the fight - fathers and sons fighting for the local mujahedeen and wives and daughters cooking and caring for the wounded. "The whole city supports this jihad," said Houssam Ali Ahmed, 53, a Fallujah resident who fled to Baghdad when his neighborhood was caught in the fighting. "The people of Fallujah are fighting to defend their homes. We are Muslim mujahedeen fighting a holy war."

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. military commanders say foreigners have an even smaller role in the insurgency. In Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey has said foreigners account for just 1 percent or so of guerrillas. Of 8,000 guerrilla suspects jailed across Iraq, only 127 hold foreign passports, the U.S. military said. In the south, no one has suggested that foreigners pack the ranks of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army. The group, which has fought U.S. and allied troops across southern Iraq, is made up of Shiite Muslim radicals, many of whom hail from the slums of Baghdad. In March, Dempsey called the idea that foreign fighters were flooding Iraq "a misconception."

Foreigners are present, and have had a greater impact on the insurrection than their numbers would suggest, Dempsey and others have said. Foot soldiers of Jordanian terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are thought to have operated in Fallujah and launched devastating bombings elsewhere. At least one al-Qaida-linked suspect has been detained in Iraq, and a Yemeni man attempting to set off a car bomb was detained last summer. A Kuwaiti newspaper reported Sunday that four of the country's citizens have been killed fighting the occupation.

Marines have captured at least one foreigner in Fallujah, a Sudanese man, said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, a Marine battalion commander. Five foreign passport holders have been detained in the city, a top military official said. Byrne said he was unsure whether any had fought in the uprising. But foreign participation appears far lower than U.S. occupation officials like chief spokesman Dan Senor have suggested. Senor has portrayed the battle of Fallujah as one in which foreign fighters and terrorists were holding the city's "silent majority" hostage.

"I would also say that there is a sense of frustration we are hearing among the silent majority of Fallujans about the foreign fighters and international terrorists that are hanging their hats in Fallujah right now," Senor said in a news conference last month. "That is not something the majority of Fallujans support."

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the command's chief spokesman, suggested this week that foreign fighters and terrorists were "driving a wedge" between Fallujah's residents and the Americans. "I find it hard to imagine that the people of Fallujah would tolerate outsiders turning their town into a battlefield," said Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East military analyst with London consultancy Jane's. "The foreign fighters are not the primary problem. Iraqi nationalists and Islamists are the problem."

Guerrillas in Fallujah have the support of many, a U.S. defense official in Washington said. Referring to the brutal March 30 killing of four U.S. contractors and the mutilation of their corpses, he said, "It wasn't Fedayeen cheering those burning bodies. It was young children and adults." A British aid worker, Jo Wilding, 29, spent five days working with an ambulance crew inside Fallujah during the fighting. Wilding said rebels detained her and took her to meet local imams and tribal leaders who appeared to be leading the uprising. "We probably saw hundreds (of fighters) and talked to a couple dozen," she said. "I had the impression it was very much grounded in the local area."

One top U.S. military official - who had publicly blamed foreign fighters for a large measure of the revolt - conceded privately that the U.S. military may never find out whether many foreigners had fought in Fallujah. Many may have escaped, he said. Previous U.S. claims that foreigners were behind attacks in Iraq have turned out to be shaky. In March, after suicide bombers killed up to 271 people during the Shiite holiday of Ashoura, U.S. and Iraqi leaders quickly blamed foreign terrorists - fingering al-Zarqawi as the chief suspect. Officials said 10 foreigners had been arrested, five of whom were released, and five of whom later turned out to be Iraqis.

Other suicide bombings, including two in February that killed almost 100 police and army recruits, were initially blamed on foreign groups. Subsequent evidence suggested Iraqis were behind the attacks.

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