Terror alliance targets US force in Iraq
by Ian Mather
Iraqis call the violent trouble-makers who have taken over the streets at night 'Ali Babas' because of the orgy of thievery in which they indulge. Now another name has been added to their lexicon, describing an altogether more deadly force: 'Wahhabis'.
The arrival of the Wahhabis, members of a fundamentalist Islamic sect, represents an ominous new element in Iraq because they are highly organised, highly motivated and well funded. It is no coincidence that the number of bloody incidents involving US troops has escalated dramatically in recent days.
One American soldier was killed last week and another injured when attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades in the town of Fallujah. Ten US soldiers have died in the past 17 days alone, and the latest death brings the total to 42 since major operations were halted.
US troops have retaliated with the biggest military operations since President George W Bush declared the war over last month. At the present rate, in three months the number of American soldiers killed since Bush's announcement on May 1 will overtake the 138 killed in hostilities and accidents during the war.
Last week, in Operation Peninsula Strike, 4,000 troops hunted guerrillas in and around Balad, north-east of Baghdad. In a separate operation at least 70 Iraqis were killed in a land and air attack on a guerrilla training camp north-west of the Iraqi capital.
The Iraqis are hitting back. An Apache helicopter was shot down during the attack. The crew escaped. A tank patrol was ambushed, resulting in 27 Iraqis killed.
American forces have been dogged by hit-and-run attacks by small groups of fighters. Hardly a day has gone by in recent weeks when US soldiers have not been ambushed by enemy forces using rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons or mines. The Iraqi fighters, said to be using coloured flares to signal the advance of American troops, are focusing on 'soft' targets such as isolated checkpoints and military vehicles carrying supplies.
Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said: "It's an organised programme - not yet, as far as we can tell, centrally directed - but an organised programme to try to thwart the coalition and its efforts to bring basic services to the Iraqi people, and they are not going to succeed."
Lieutenant General David McKiernan, the senior allied land commander, said his troops are facing resistance from Ba'ath Party loyalists, paramilitary forces and militants "from other Arab countries". He said that he did "not exclude" the Wahhabis.
According to US intelligence, Wahhabis were among an armed group that took over an abandoned village 30 miles east of Iraq and used its buildings for training. One officer said: "All of a sudden these Wahhabi guys have been appearing. We're hearing that word a lot more."
The inspiration and funding for the Wahhabis comes from Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is the ultra-strict, separatist form of Islam that is the official sect of Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden was a follower.
In a disturbing development for the American-led regime in Iraq, Saudi-backed religious fanatics have crossed the border to join forces with remnants of the Ba'ath party in waging war against the Americans.
Superficially, the Wahhabis seem strange bedfellows for the Ba'athists, since Ba'athism is a secular organisation. But the Wahhabis are Sunnis, and the Ba'athists, who dominated Saddam's regime, are drawn exclusively from the Sunnis in Iraq. The Wahhabis and the Ba'athists have a common enemy in the Shia Muslims, who form a majority in Iraq and a minority in Saudi Arabia that the Wahhabis consider a threat. The US military presence in Iraq has given the Shia an opportunity to grab more power, giving the virulently anti-American Wahhabis a double motive for joining the Ba'athists' struggle.
Dr Mai Yamani, a Middle East specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said: "There is incredible animosity from the Wahhabis towards the Shia, whom they consider heretics. The Shia form a majority in the eastern province where the oil is, and there is even talk of their joining with the Shia in Iran to form a sort of 'Petrolistan'. The war in Iraq has brought a resurgence of Shi'ism in Iraq and emboldened the Shia in Saudi Arabia."
The animosity was re-ignited by the Iranian Revolution when Ayatollah Khomenei, a Shia, challenged the Wahhabis and said they should not be the custodians of the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. This was a direct challenge to the House of Saud, since senior Wahhabi clergy form an integral part of the Saudi government.
Yamani said: "Now we have the so-called 'new Wahhabis', thousands and thousands of angry graduates of Saudi religious schools, many of whom are embarking on jihad or want to fight the Shias. It is entirely understandable that they should be trying to influence what is going on in Iraq."
Stephen Schwartz, director of the Islam and Democracy Programme at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, said: "The Wahhabis hate Shia Muslims more than they hate anyone else in the world, Jews and Christians included.
"Saudi Arabia has a large and discontented Shia minority who have suffered a long history of discrimination and cruel treatment under Wahhabi dominance." Though the Saudi regime is careful to distance itself from the most extreme Wahhabi activities abroad, behind the scenes it sees the Iraq war as opening up an opportunity to expand its ideological influence through missionary networks dedicated to the global spread of Wahhabism, according to Schwartz. "And where Wahhabism goes, terrorism is seldom far behind."
There is growing evidence of Wahhabi activities in Iraq. Last month's issue of The Future of Islam, a monthly publication of the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth, which is accused of financing al-Qaeda, carried a cover interview with Saudi cleric Ayed al-Qarni. Al-Qarni, an adviser to Prince Abdel-Aziz bin Fahd, youngest son of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, stated that he prays for the destruction of America several times a day. He also urged Saudi subjects to go and fight in Iraq or contribute money.
Another Wahhabi cleric, Naser Al-Omar, preaches in favour of suicide attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. "We should hope for more bombings to kill more of the enemies of God, the Jews and Christians," he said in a recent interview.
Even before the war on Iraq an alliance had sprung up between the Wahhabis and the Ba'athists.
Saudi alarm at the Shi'ite uprising after the Gulf War led Saudi Arabia to promote Wahhabism in Iraq, diplomats say. Saddam encouraged Wahhabi influence as a counterweight to the Shi'ite majority. Despite suppressing Islamist opposition for years, his government sponsored a four-year "faith campaign" to encourage Iraqis to turn to religion. Dozens of mosques and religious schools sprouted across Iraq. Most of the clergy were Wahhabis, who gave full vent to their penchant for enforcing public morals and intolerance of non-Muslims.
"Wahhabi agents are working underground to incite Iraqi Shia against co-operation with the temporary occupation authorities," said Schwartz. "As New York's Shia leader Agha Jafri put it: 'The Arab street is the Wahhabi street', and when the Arabs demonstrate against the United States in Iraq, the Wahhabis are never far from the scene.
"Whatever course we follow in dealing with Syria, Iran, or any other perceived threat, we should attend to Saudi Arabia's mischief north of its long and porous border with Iraq."
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