U.S. authorities in Iraq have intelligence linking a Jordanian terrorist with al Qaeda connections to a series of bombings that killed scores of Shiite Muslims in two Iraqi cities yesterday on the holiest day of their faith, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said today.
Gen. John Abizaid, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, said the intelligence shows that Abu Musab Zarqawi was behind the attacks at Shiite shrines in Baghdad and Karbala and that he has links to former members of the intelligence service of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Abizaid provided no public details of either assertion.
Shortly afterward, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. occupation administrator in Iraq, told a Baghdad news conference that much of the terrorism in Iraq originates outside the country. He outlined measures to tighten control of Iraq’s borders by adding more Iraqi border police.
Shiite leaders in Iraq, meanwhile, appealed for calm today, urging their followers to avoid being drawn into a religious civil war with Sunni Muslims, a minority in Iraq that historically has held political power in the country. Many Sunnis remain loyal to Hussein, who brutally repressed Shiites during his three-decade rule.
The statements came as many Iraqis blamed the United States for failing to prevent the suicide attacks and bombings, which left hundreds of people dead or wounded on Ashura, commemorating the day in 680 A.D. that Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in battle in Karbala.
According to the Iraqi Governing Council, 271 people were killed and nearly 400 wounded in nearly simultaneous bombings at Baghdad’s Kazimiya shrine and at sacred sites in Karbala about 60 miles southwest of the capital. But U.S. officials today put the death toll at 117, down from the 143 they reported yesterday. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting figures.
In any case, it was the bloodiest single day in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was driven from power by a U.S. military forces last April.
Abizaid said the attacks in Baghdad and Karbala took place within four minutes of each other at about 10 a.m. local time, but that another attempt to attack a Shiite holy site in the southern Iraqi city of Basra was foiled. News agencies reported that Iraqi police also thwarted attempts to bomb Shiites in the northern city of Kirkuk and in Najaf, a Shiite holy city south of Karbala.
At least six suicide bombers participated in the attacks, “which is the most we’ve seen on any single day,” Abizaid said. He said more attackers may have been associated with the bombings.
“The level of organization and the desire to cause casualties among innocent worshipers is a clear hallmark of the Zarqawi network, and we have intelligence that ties Zarqawi to this attack,” Abizaid told the committee. “We also have intelligence that shows that there is some linkage between Zarqawi and the former regime elements, specifically the Iraqi Intelligence Service, and we are concerned to see a terrorist group come into close coordination with former Iraqi Intelligence Service people, because that creates an opportunity for the enemy of cooperation that can have a lot of danger for the force.”
Abizaid said U.S. authorities received some intelligence indicating that attacks would take place and passed that information on to the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, as well as local authorities. He said that because of sensitivity about U.S. troops approaching Islamic holy sites, there has been a longstanding agreement that Iraqi police and local Shiite guards would protect their shrines and that U.S.-led coalition forces would man an “outer ring.”
The general said terrorists have been trying to attack “several prominent [Shiite] personalities” and that the night before the bombings, “American special operations units raided some of the Zarqawi network operatives and probably prevented even greater carnage by being successful on one of those raids.”
Abizaid said it was clear that those who planned the massacre “also planned to blame it on the United States.” He said there were indications that the attackers planted leaflets shortly before the blasts in Baghdad claiming that U.S. forces had mortared the worshipers.
“These attacks are despicable and they show the clear lie of the idea that Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri and their like are fighting for Islam,” Abizaid said. “They are enemies of Islam. They have killed more Muslims in the past month than anybody could ever imagine, for no vision other than to cause destruction and to cause civil war to take place in Iraq.” He referred to Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian and top associate of bin Laden in the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Abizaid warned that as Iraq moves toward a scheduled transfer of sovereignty this summer and eventual elections, “violence could well increase.” He said “there is always the chance” that the efforts of Zarqawi, his Ansar al-Islam group and al Qaeda could succeed in fomenting civil war, but that “I do not believe it is probable.”
“It’s clear that the strategy of the Zarqawi network, Ansar al-Islam, al Qaeda and other extremist groups is to undermine the ability of Iraqi security forces to gain a foothold against them, and they know that ultimately it will be Iraqi security forces that defeat them,” Abizaid said. “So, they have embarked upon a strategy of attacking Iraqi security institutions, assassinating Iraqi leaders that are part of these institutions.”
In his Baghdad news conference, Bremer said, “It is increasingly apparent that a large part of this terrorism comes from outside the country.” He said that “we are strengthening border protection to counter it.” About 8,000 border police have been recruited, Bremer said, “and more are on the way.”
Bremer said, “We are adding hundreds of vehicles and doubling border police staffing in selected areas. The United States has committed $60 million to support border security. These are practical measures and they will have an effect.”
He said yesterday’s attacks were aimed at inciting conflict among Iraqi Muslims, but that the effort “has failed and it will fail.”
The alleged mastermind, Zarqawi, a 37-year-old Jordanian, is wanted for a plot to bomb millennium celebrations in Jordan and for the assassination in that country in 2002 of a U.S. Embassy official.
Last month, U.S. authorities in Baghdad released a letter that was found in the possession of a suspected al Qaeda courier and that officials said was apparently written by Zarqawi to appeal for help from bin Laden’s organization in inciting civil war in Iraq.
In it, the author expressed particular virulence toward Shiites, whom some fundamentalist Sunnis regard as heretics. The letter called Shiites “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.” It described Shiism as “a sect of treachery and betrayal throughout history” and “a creed that aims to combat the Sunnis.”
The letter said fighting the Americans “is something easy,” because “the enemy is apparent, his back is exposed, and he does not know the land or the current situation of the [insurgent fighters] because his intelligence information is weak.” The Iraqi army and police, “made up of the [Shiites] filled out with Sunni agents, is the real danger that we face,” said the document, a 17-page letter found on a computer disk. “They are more cunning than their Crusader masters. . . . As the days pass, their hopes are growing that they will establish a Shiite state stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and ending in the Cardboard Kingdom of the Gulf,” an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
The letter also lamented that if not for warfare between Sunnis and Shiites centuries ago, Islam would have “spread under the auspices of the sword of glory and jihad all across Europe” and that Europeans “would today be reading the Koran just as the Algerian Berber does.”
As for Iraq’s Sunnis, the letter said, without the “unifying” leadership of Saddam Hussein, “they are more wretched than orphans at the tables of the depraved.” It also complained that the insurgency carried out by Iraqis “unfortunately [takes the form of] mines planted, rockets launched and mortars shelling from afar,” and that Iraqi insurgent groups sometimes boasted of not losing anyone in their operations.
“The Iraqi brothers still prefer safety and returning to the arms of their wives, where nothing frightens them,” the letter said derisively. “We have told them in our many sessions with them that safety and victory are not compatible. . . .”
Juan R. I. Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, said the venom purportedly expressed by Zarqawi toward Shiites was “par for the course” among “hyper-Sunni” groups such as al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam, the terrorist organization that was based in a Kurdish area of Iraq and with which U.S. officials say Zarqawi has been affiliated.
Although U.S. policymakers sometimes lump Islamic extremist groups together, the radical Sunni organizations “hate Shiites and consider Shiism to be a form of idolatry,” Cole said. He said bin Laden shares this view, noting the al Qaeda leader’s references to “fighting against Crusaders, Jews and idolators,” a term he said is widely understood among Sunnis as a code word for Shiites.
“The al Qaeda types really, really hate the Shiites,” Cole said. He said that since Ashura is often marked by processions in which Shiites curse the early caliphs of Islam, who are revered by Sunnis but regarded as illegitimate successors to Muhammad by Shiites, “from the hyper-Sunni, anti-Shiite point of view, this was a perfect day to hit them.”