FALLUJAH, Iraq, June 21 — Groups of armed fighters from the Baath Party and security agencies of ousted President Saddam Hussein have organized a loose network called the Return to harass U.S. occupation forces, with the goal of driving them out of the country, and the group is partially responsible for the string of fatal attacks on American soldiers in recent weeks, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
THE INTENSIFIED RESISTANCE has been reinforced by the participation of foreign fighters coming into Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq, told reporters at a conference in Jordan today. “We do see signs of outside involvement in a number of ways,” he said. Bremer said that “we so far don’t see signs of command and control in these attacks,” adding that it appears largely to be small groups of five to 10 people.
According to the officials, the Return, or Awdah in Arabic, has been assembled by Iraqis who possessed funds, weapons, transportation, listening devices and informants at the end of the war. The Iraqis retained the equipment provided to them by Hussein’s government. Although the hierarchical structure of Hussein’s security and political agencies has been broken, the relationships among secret police, intelligence officials and Baathists endure, the Iraqi and U.S. officials said.
The mounting U.S. casualty toll and the sophistication of recent ambushes have deepened fears among U.S. officials that the military is facing a guerrilla war. The center of the resistance is a crescent of central Iraq dominated by Sunni Muslims, a minority who were the key base of support for Hussein’s government and his repressive security apparatus.
MILITANTS UNDER SURVEILLANCE
In this Sunni town, a cauldron of anti-American hostility, Awdah members are under the surveillance of U.S. forces and Iraqi informers, officials here said. Intermediaries from Awdah and pro-Hussein families in the area have succeeded in making contact with other anti-American forces in the region, they added.
“The Return is one of the facets of resistance. It is mainly former security forces. They come in and shoot an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] and race out of town before we can get a shot off,” said Capt. John Ives, from the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. “It’s harder for us to identify them. People in Fallujah don’t know who they are.”
“The Return is operating here,” said Taha Bedaiwi Alwani, the U.S.-supported mayor of Fallujah. “They are people who had power under the old regime. They have the weapons to cause trouble. They dream of coming back.”
Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of 4th Infantry Division, recently identified the Return as one of the groups organizing attacks against U.S. troops. The others were the Snake Party and the New Return. But he called the assaults on U.S. troops “militarily insignificant.”
RETURN OF HUSSEIN RULE?
Although the name Return implies the restoration of Hussein’s rule, some Iraqis and U.S. officials speculate that organizers of the group are interested in bringing back the autocratic system without the former leader. Some of the group’s funding comes from wealthy families in the Sunni belt. One former Iraqi general, who asked that his name not be used, said that sponsors were paying the equivalent of $1,000 for new recruits and $3,000 to members who bring in other candidates. “They only want trained people,” the former general said. “They don’t love Saddam. The idea is to kick out the Americans and get back in charge.”
“We detect a trend in trying to make less attacks but do them more effectively to make a bigger impact,” said a U.S. military intelligence specialist. “It’s very secretive. They move from town to town. Still, their skill is not so great. But they try hard.”
As an example, the soldier pointed to an attack on Thursday night on U.S. soldiers guarding a pair of electrical transformers in Fallujah. The rocket-propelled grenade missed the Bradley fighting vehicle out front but destroyed one of the transformers.
OPERATION DESERT SCORPION
Routing “Baathist remnants,” the name U.S. officials generically apply to the armed opposition, is a key goal of the ongoing Operation Desert Scorpion. For a week, thousands of troops have raided Baghdad, Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah, Thuluya and other towns in central Iraq on the hunt for arms, intelligence and money. Today, troops from the 1st Armored Division raided a community center in Baghdad and found documents labeled “top secret” and “personal.” The Associated Press reported that the soldiers found documents related to Iraq’s nuclear program. An officer on the scene was quoted as saying the find was “potentially significant.”
U.S. troops also raided the Baghdad offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and hauled away three Iraqis, documents and computers. The council is an Iran-based Shiite Muslim group that was part of a sextet of opposition organizations that had been endorsed by the Bush administration. But U.S. officials and the group have fallen out over its persistent criticism of the U.S. occupation.
Bremer has also warned Iran against fomenting “paramilitary” activities in the Shiite Muslim south.
The raid preceded a small Shiite demonstration in Baghdad in which a few hundred protesters chanted, “We want to form a national government.”
U.S. officers and Iraqi officials say that Muslim organizations, arms smugglers and other common criminals, and Iraqis seeking revenge for the deaths of kin at the hands of Americans are also involved in attacks against U.S. forces.
In Fallujah, Iraqi officials say that Wahabbis, members of the same sect that produced Osama bin Laden, have been trying to organize operations against the U.S. forces. Members of the underground Muslim Brotherhood, possibly backed by Islamic radicals in Jordan, have also appeared in Fallujah.
U.S. officials pinpointed one mosque in Fallujah as a source of anti-American rhetoric and gunfire. The Muadithi Mosque was the scene of a shootout in which U.S. soldiers said they were fired on, killing a bystander on the street who was fixing his car nearby. Hamed Faleh Khalaf, an assistant to the mosque’s imam, denied today that anyone had fired from the premises. He did, however, unload invective on the Americans. “The U.S. Army did not come to free Iraq, but to invade Iraq and take oil and everything valuable,” he said.