Part Three: Guerrilla war without any end in sight

Iraq: The insurgents are a hotch-potch of ex-army officers, Baathists and Islamists, not al-Qa'ida, reports Phil Reeves from Baghdad
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The Independent Online

Long before the dust settled over the Istanbul bomb sites, President George Bush and his advisers will have asked themselves a now familiar question. Is there any connection linking such bombers with elements fighting the US occupation of Iraq?

The White House is as unflagging as ever in its quest to portray the conflict in Iraq as part of a global war in which democracy is pitched against international terrorism, a good-versus-evil contest to replace the Cold War. But its case, obediently echoed by Tony Blair, is not being convincingly borne out by American generals in the field or by Iraqis. And its tactics risk fuelling the extreme and violent attitudes in the wider world that it seeks to defeat.

The Bush administration has had much to say about the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq - Mr Bush's notorious "al-Qa'ida types". But, though these exist, they appear few in number, and US commanders have questioned their significance. There are also indications from the increasingly vocal Iraqi resistance that its members do not necessarily support the foreign suicide bombers.

The general in charge of the US forces in Baghdad, Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, suspects that cells use foreign "jihadis" when they want to carry out a suicide bombing. But he defines his enemy primarily as "the former regime ... people interested in power, and the restoration of it in their interest".

In fact, the guerrillas who have taken up arms against the Americans in Iraq appear to be a home-grown hotch-potch - Baathists, Islamists, disaffected discharged army officers and more. They have produced no unifying political ideology, beyond their common goal of ending the occupation. But their commitment to their cause, like that of al-Qa'ida and its affiliates, is underpinned by a general anti-Americanism, fuelled by Washington's overall foreign policy, particularly its support for Israel.

It is also fair to assume that this is hardened by the failure of Mr Bush and his acolytes to be honest about the Iraqi conflict. This mendacity is certain to be intensifying anti-American sentiments outside Iraq, including among those susceptible to the violent mentality of al-Qa'ida.

In Iraq itself, popular disaffection with the US occupation is playing into the hands of the resistance, whose most active zone is the Sunni Triangle. The Anglo-American invasion has brought some advances - free(ish) speech, the disappearance of Saddam's thugs and spies, better pay and opportunities for a minority. But massive unemployment, insecurity, harsh treatment of Iraqi civilians by inept US troops, power cuts and long petrol queues continue to sow discontent. This embraces the not insignificant element of Iraqis who want the US forces to stay, because they fear a withdrawal will bring chaos, or advantage to their rivals.

The picture emerging from conversations between journalists and Iraqis who say they are either part of, or close to, the resistance suggest they are by no means universally pro-Saddam. "Very few people are fighting for him," one purported guerrilla, who described himself as a Baath Party loyalist, told a reporter in Samara. "They gave up on him at the end of the war."

Eager to demoralise its opponents and to discourage their potential recruits, the US military portrays the guerrillas as regime diehards whose operatives (although not their cell controllers) are unsophisticated. But the resistance fighters have the key components for guerrilla warfare.

They have access to a large arsenal of weapons. Saddam's compulsory army service made sure that millions of Iraqis have basic weapons training. The resistance has also demonstrated a capacity for effective and ruthless attacks which have disrupted the country's reconstruction and are driving away foreign contractors and aid workers.

Since Mr Bush declared an end to major combat in May, guerrillas have assassinated Iraqi politicians for co-operating with the US occupiers. They have bombed US officials in their Baghdad hotels. They have blown up the United Nations, the Red Cross and Iraqi police stations using suicide volunteers. They have shot down helicopters, torched oil pipes and hit military and supply convoys.

They have also demonstrated a grim flair for headline-grabbing. No sooner had the Americans last week announced a "70 per cent" drop in attacks in Baghdad as a result of their "Iron Hammer" offensive against several cells than the guerrillas replied with a volley of rockets against prime city-centre targets.

The Americans argued that "Iron Hammer" won support from peaceable Iraqis. But a tragic cameo illustrated how they are at times the recruiting sergeant for their opponents. US soldiers were conducting a house-to-house weapons search in al-Dora in southern Baghdad at 10am on Monday. An altercation blew up between an Iraqi carpenter and an American soldier. It ended when the soldier shot the man through the heart from close range.

Relatives of the dead man, Ahmed Karim al-Janabi, 36, say that he did nothing to provoke the soldier, although they admit that he was holding a small saw in his hand when he was shot. The Americans maintained that he attacked one of them. The family wanted the US troops to provide a document confirming the incident, so that they could get burial authorisation.

A note was duly scrawled out and handed to the imam of the local mosque. It was 18 words long. "Ahmed Kareem Abid was shot by US forces. The individual attacked a US soldier and was shot and killed. SSG Doe." That was it. No polite expressions or formalities, so important in the Arab world. The sergeant didn't even have the courtesy to sign his own name.

The imam, Sheikh Yassin al-Hambani, was so angry that he tore up the note. "I told the soldiers: what are you doing? They are driving people to resist. Two young men came to me afterwards saying they wanted to avenge his death by attacking the Americans. It was difficult to dissuade them."