The Magazine

Under Fire in Baghdad

From the November 10, 2003 issue: Distinguishing foe from foe.

Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The attack could have been far worse. The blue trailer held 40 anti-tank rockets--20 Russian and 20 French. Just 29 of the 40 rockets fired. Seventeen of those 29 hit the building. And only six of the 17 rockets that hit the building exploded. Six out of 40 did what they were supposed to do.

The French rockets, according to three U.S. Army ordnance experts who examined them, were of recent vintage and were almost certainly produced after their export to Iraq was prohibited by the cease-fire that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

"They were the newer version," said one soldier who inspected the rockets. "So they were sold after the embargo was in place."

Weapons from a variety of countries are available on the black market in Iraq, including American-made "Stinger" surface-to-air missiles. The Bush administration has been careful to avoid speculating about French and Russian commercial interests contributing to their opposition to the Iraq War. But military officials here say they have found dozens of examples of French armaments, many of which were manufactured after the embargo and some of which have dates as recent as 2002.

Wolfowitz, who appeared concerned but composed throughout the morning, issued a strongly worded statement about the attacks. "This terrorist act will not deter us from completing our mission--which is to help the Iraqi people free themselves from the type of criminals who did this and to protect the American people from this kind of terrorism," he said. "There are a few who refuse to accept the reality of a new and free Iraq. We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of them."

I WENT TO IRAQ HOPING to return with answers to two questions. (1) Who, exactly, is attacking American soldiers and Iraqi civilians? and (2) Can we be more effective in stopping them?

The answer to the first question is unsettling: We don't know. In talking to military officials--high-ranking officers as well as grunts--I heard a wide variety of guesses, sometimes in the same discussion.

The Pentagon last week put the number of foreign fighters at 3,000 and suggested it was growing. General Norton Schwartz, in a briefing on October 23, didn't get into numbers but called the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Islam the "principal organized terrorist adversary in Iraq right now."

But the day after Schwartz's briefing, the press traveling with Wolfowitz arrived in Baghdad and received a briefing from a senior military intelligence officer. His answer was different. "The foreign fighter piece of this is very small," he said. "We're talking hundreds. That number is pretty small."

In central Iraq, site of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Armored Division, seemed to concur. He reported that his troops spend most of their time fighting FRL--former regime loyalists--and "have not seen any al Qaeda yet." But minutes later, he said it's religious extremists who pose the "most enduring threat to the coalition."

Last Monday, after the attacks on the al Rashid and the car-bombing of the Red Cross in Baghdad, Odierno was asked directly "what percentage of the forces opposing you are foreign born, Baathist, and criminals?"

His response: "I would say that 95 percent are former regime loyalists. . . . There's a mixture of some people in it for criminal activity, but a lot of them are conducting criminal activity in order to pay for their operations against coalition forces, so I kind of wrap them together. And really it's a very, very small percentage of foreign fighters--2, 3, 4, 5 percent. We've really only picked up a few of those, a couple from Syria, some Wahhabists from other countries. But that's really been it. We have not seen a large influx of foreign fighters thus far."

Military officials near the Syrian border disagree with that second point. Jihadists are "streaming in," they say, and the strict rules of engagement imposed on American soldiers are making it difficult to stop the foreign fighters. (Soldiers on the border don't like the fact that they have to quickly remove and bury the terrorists they do kill, saying they would prefer to leave the bodies where they fall as a warning to other would-be fighters.)

It's hard to overstate the difficulty in collecting intelligence on the nature of the threat. But the answers above, while not necessarily contradictory, do suggest deep confusion about the answer to the most important question of postwar Iraq: Who are we fighting?