Iraq now a terrorist breeding ground, say US officials

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The Independent Online

President Bush's Iraq policy has received another heavy blow with a report by top intelligence advisers that the 2003 invasion and its aftermath have turned the country into a breeding ground for a new generation of worldwide Islamic terrorism.

President Bush's Iraq policy has received another heavy blow with a report by top intelligence advisers that the 2003 invasion and its aftermath have turned the country into a breeding ground for a new generation of worldwide Islamic terrorism.

Post-Saddam Iraq has become "a magnet for international terrorist activity," said Robert Hutchings, director of the National Intelligence Council, the official research arm of the entire US intelligence community, as he presented Mapping the Global Future, the NIC's latest report on long-term global trends.

The NIC warning is the second repudiation within a week of the Bush administration's rationale for the war. Two days ago, the White House quietly signalled it had ended the search for Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Since then - and especially during his 2004 re-election campaign - the President has portrayed Iraq as a key part of the global war on terror and insisted the US has been made safer by the overthrow of Saddam.

But these claims have been demolished by the NIC. According to David Low, a senior NIC official, Iraq has been transformed into "a training and recruitment ground, and an opportunity [for terrorists] to enhance their technical skills".

The likelihood now - even in the best case scenario where the upcoming Iraqi elections restore some stability to the country - is that foreign terrorists currently operating there will "go home, wherever home is", and disperse across the world as new threats to the US.

Implicitly, the report also debunks the assertions of Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, that Saddam had close and active links with al-Qa'ida. Instead, it says, radical Islamic terrorists only moved in amid the post-war chaos. As the report notes, the al-Qa'ida generation that trained in Afghanistan will dissipate, "to be replaced in part by survivors of the conflict in Iraq".

Their potential number, moreover, continues to grow. No longer do US commanders pretend the resistance in Iraq consists of only a few thousand insurgents. The latest estimates suggest there are 40,000 or so hardcore fighters, who have 200,000 or more sympathisers in the population. US officials admit that only a small proportion of the insurgents are foreigners.

Within little more than a decade, the NIC report predicts, al-Qa'ida will have been superseded by other Islamic extremist groups who will merge with local separatist and resistance movements. This process of fragmentation will make the job of US counter-terrorism even harder.

The threat, warns the NIC, "will become an eclectic array of groups, cells and individuals that do not need a stationary headquarters".

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