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The 'myth' of Iraq's foreign fighters

Christian Science Monitor | September 24 2005
By Tom Regan

The US and Iraqi governments have vastly overstated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq, and most of them don't come from Saudi Arabia, according to a new report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). According to a piece in The Guardian, this means the US and Iraq "feed the myth" that foreign fighters are the backbone of the insurgency. While the foreign fighters may stoke the insurgency flames, they only comprise only about 4 to 10 percent of the estimated 30,000 insurgents.

The CSIS study also disputes media reports that Saudis comprise the largest group of foreign fighters. CSIS says "Algerians are the largest group (20 percent), followed by Syrians (18 percent), Yemenis (17 percent), Sudanese (15 percent), Egyptians (13 percent), Saudis (12 percent) and those from other states (5 percent)." CSIS gathered the information for its study from intelligence sources in the Gulf region.

The CSIS report says: "The vast majority of Saudi militants who have entered Iraq were not terrorist sympathizers before the war; and were radicalized almost exclusively by the coalition invasion."
The average age of the Saudis was 17-25 and they were generally middle-class with jobs, though they usually had connections with the most prominent conservative tribes. "Most of the Saudi militants were motivated by revulsion at the idea of an Arab land being occupied by a non-Arab country. These feelings are intensified by the images of the occupation they see on television and the Internet ... the catalyst most often cited [in interrogations] is Abu Ghraib, though images from Guantánamo Bay also feed into the pathology."

The report also gives notes that the Saudi government for spending nearly $1.2 billion over the past two years, and deploying 35,000 troops, in an effort to secure its border with Iraq. The major problem remains the border with Syria, which lacks the resources of the Saudis to create a similar barrier on its border.

The Associated Press reports that CSIS believes most of the insurgents are not "Saddam Hussein loyalists" but members of Sunni Arab Iraqi tribes. They do not want to see Mr. Hussein return to power, but they are "wary of a Shiite-led government."

The Los Angeles Times reports that a greater concern is that 'skills' foreign fighters are learning in Iraq are being exported to their home countries. This is a particular concern for Europe, since early this year US intelligence reported that "Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose network is believed to extend far beyond Iraq, had dispatched teams of battle-hardened operatives to European capitals."

Iraq has become a superheated, real-world academy for lessons about weapons, urban combat and terrorist trade craft, said Thomas Sanderson of [CSIS].
Extremists in Iraq are "exposed to international networks from around the world," said Sanderson, who has been briefed by German security agencies. "They are returning with bomb-making skills, perhaps stolen explosives, vastly increased knowledge. If they are succeeding in a hostile environment, avoiding ... US Special Forces, then to go back to Europe, my God, it's kid's play."

Meanwhile, The Boston Globe reports that President Bush, in a speech Thursday that was "clearly designed to dampen the potential impact of the antiwar rally" this weekend in Washington, said his top military commanders in Iraq have told him that they are making progress against the insurgents and "in establishing a politically viable state."
Newly trained Iraqi forces are taking the lead in many security operations, the president said, including a recent offensive in the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar along the Syrian border a key transit point for foreign fighters and supplies.
"Iraqi forces are showing the vital difference they can make," Bush said. '"They are now in control of more parts of Iraq than at any time in the past two years. Significant areas of Baghdad and Mosul, once violent and volatile, are now more stable because Iraqi forces are helping to keep the peace."

The president's speech, however, was followed by comments made Thursday by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. Prince Saud al-Faisal said the US ignored warnings the Saudi government gave it about occupying Iraq. Prince al-Faisal also said he fears US policies in Iraq will lead to the country breaking up into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite parts. He also said that Saudi Arabia is not ready to send an ambassador to Baghdad, because he would become a target for the insurgents. "I doubt he would last a day," al-Faisal said.
Finally, The Guardian reports that "ambitions for Iraq are being drastically scaled down in private" by British and US officials. The main goal has now become avoiding the image of failure. The paper quotes sources in the British Foreign department as saying that hopes to turn Iraq into a model of democracy for the Middle East had been put aside. "We will settle for leaving behind an Iraqi democracy that is creaking along," the source said .

 

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