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IRAQ: Ongoing Attacks

Author: Sharon Otterman
August 21, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Why was the United Nations targeted in Iraq?

We don't know. It remains unclear who was responsible for the August 19 truck bomb that killed at least 23 people at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Suspects include Saddam Hussein loyalists; Islamist fighters from Ansar al-Islam, an affiliate of al Qaeda, or from other lesser known Iraqi terror groups; and foreign Islamist terrorists eager to fight Americans.

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Has any group claimed responsibility?

Yes. A previously unknown group, calling itself the Armed Vanguards of the Second Mohammed Army, sent a statement on August 21 to the Al-Arabiya television station and the Associated Press in which it pledged "to continue fighting every foreigner [in Iraq] and to carry out similar operations." But, as with a variety of other groups that have claimed responsibility for attacks in Iraq in recent weeks, U.S. military officials say they haven't determined if the Armed Vanguards is an authentic organization or an invention by opponents of the U.S.-led occupation intended to mislead investigators.

What did the terrorists hope to achieve?

Terror experts speculate that by hitting such a high profile target, the attackers may have been trying to "create a sense of momentum on the ground" to encourage other terror attacks, said Matthew Levitt, an expert on terrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The building that houses the U.N. offices, the Canal Hotel, was also a "target of opportunity," says Levitt, far easier to strike than the heavily protected military facilities of U.S. forces. Other experts say the U.N. headquarters was selected to maximize fear and chaos. "There's a sense of wanting to show the rest of the world that Iraq is in a state of pandemonium, that Iraq cannot be controlled, and that the United States is not in control," says Jonathan Schanzer, also of the Washington Institute.

What's happened in the wake of the August 19 attack?

An immediate result is that the United Nations is pulling some one-third of its staff out of Iraq and tightening its security measures for the personnel who remain. Other civilian institutions in Iraq providing assistance, such as the World Bank, are also withdrawing staff members, at least temporarily. This will likely slow the pace of the reconstruction of Iraq.

The bombing also spurred a new round of discussions between the United Nations and the United States about improving security in Iraq. Washington has been reluctant to share power in Iraq, but many nations, including India, France, Germany, and Turkey, have said they will not contribute peacekeeping troops unless the United Nations is granted more authority. A new Security Council resolution is reportedly being drafted by Secretary of State Colin Powell, but whether it will cede greater control to the United Nations or only encourage other nations to participate in the U.S.-led effort is unknown.

Could the U.N. bombing help encourage reluctant nations to assist in Iraq?

It might, though much now depends on U.S. diplomacy. Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow and the director of Middle East and Gulf Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the bombing may help convince Arab nations and other opponents of the war that the people attacking targets in Iraq are not "freedom fighters," but killers from whom no one, no matter how well-intentioned, is safe. "This may begin to turn the rhetoric and dialogue toward one of terrorism," she says. Schanzer, of the Washington Institute, agrees that the bombing should encourage the world to unite against the terror threat. "This was an attack on the United Nations and, therefore, an attack against the rest of the world. It's a reminder that this is a global war against terror— and the United Nations is not immune."

What's the evidence that Baath Party loyalists could have carried out the bombing?

FBI investigators say that the munitions used in the explosion are likely to have come from Iraqi military arsenals. The explosion was caused by a 500-pound Soviet-made bomb, and from 500 to 1,000 pounds of other munitions, such as Soviet-made artillery and mortar shells and grenades dating as far back as the 1960s. But terrorism experts and U.S. officials caution that this evidence alone does not definitively link the explosion to Saddam loyalists or remnants of the Iraqi military.

What elements of the former regime in particular are suspected?

There are an estimated 100,000 unemployed former members of the Iraqi security services concentrated in the pro-Saddam "Sunni triangle" region north of Baghdad. Some news reports say suspicions focus on men who worked for Muhammad Khtair al-Dulaimi in the Special Operations Directorate, the branch of the Iraqi secret service that specialized in remote-control bombings, poisonings, and other operations. The former chief is at large and is suspected of putting his employees to work against the Americans, an intelligence source told The New York Times.

Why is Ansar al-Islam suspected of involvement?

Kurdish and U.S. officials say that some 300 members of the Islamist group, which is alleged to have ties to al Qaeda, survived the late-March coalition bombing of their compound in northern Iraq and fled to Iran. Over the last month, some 150 fighters are believed to have filtered back into Iraq. Dana Ahmed Majed, the director of Kurdish security forces, told The Boston Globe that he believes the group is organizing cells in Baghdad and in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya. Ansar al-Islam, some terror experts say, appears to be forming the backbone of the growing group of jihadist fighters gathering in Iraq. But other experts stress that not all Islamist terrorists now believed to be in Iraq are linked directly to Ansar al-Islam.

Who is the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Islam?

Mullah Mustapha Kreikar, who has political asylum in Norway but is now being investigated for ties to al Qaeda by the Norwegian authorities. Kreikar has recently preached of jihad against perceived opponents of Islam. In an interview August 10 with LBC, the Lebanese satellite television channel, he said that the fight in Iraq would be the culmination of all Muslim efforts to restore the Islamic caliphate, which collapsed, along with the Ottoman Empire, in the early 20th century. "There is no difference between this occupation and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979," he said, according to a New York Times translation. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft visited Norway Sept. 1, but did not ask for Kreikar's extradition to the United States, according to the Norway Post

What are the links between Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda?

Ansar al-Islam is a Qaeda affiliate, which means it accepts funding and other resources from al Qaeda and, in exchange, carries out terrorist missions approved or sought by high-level organizers of the terror group, says the Washington Institute's Schanzer. A recently released White House document called "Results in Iraq: 100 Days Toward Security and Freedom," says that "senior al Qaeda associate" Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam together established facilities in northern Iraq that "were, before the war, an al Qaeda poisons/toxins laboratory."

What other groups could be behind the attacks?

U.S. and Kurdish officials have captured Islamic fighters— reportedly from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen— as they were being smuggled across the Syrian-Iraq border. "What we're seeing now is jihadis coming in from all over, from Albania to Algeria," Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, told the Los Angeles Times. "They're answering the call from [Osama] bin Laden ... not to defend Saddam, but to defend Islam," he said, adding that U.S. and allied intelligence officials believe that 500 to 600 of these foreign fighters have entered Iraq.

In addition, there appear to be groups of homegrown Islamist fighters cropping up in Iraq. The pan-Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya last week aired a video depicting five men, apparently Iraqis, who called for attacks against the Americans to free the country from occupation. They claimed to represent three unknown groups: White Flags, Muslim Youth, and the Army of Mohammed.

How have attacks against the coalition and its efforts in Iraq changed in recent weeks?

Until the August 7 truck bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad that killed 17, the attacks were relatively small-scale. Typical attacks included mortar rounds and grenades fired at coalition military convoys and facilities, mines and improvised devices exploded in roadways, and gunfire aimed at individual U.S. soldiers and others associated with occupation forces. The Jordanian Embassy and U.N. headquarters bombings indicate a shift to more sophisticated terror tactics and a willingness to hit so-called "soft" targets, which are non-military and often occupied by civilians.

What other attacks appear to be part of this new trend?

Recent acts of sabotage against Iraq's civilian infrastructure, which appear to be broader in scope than earlier ones. An August 17 attack blew a hole in Baghdad's primary water main; an earlier attack severely damaged a key oil pipeline that carries fuel from Iraq's northern oil fields to Ceyhan, an oil storage and shipping port in Turkey.

Does it appear that the same group could be behind all of these attacks?

Experts caution that these recent attacks could be the work of different groups, and not necessarily coordinated. If they are being conducted by outsiders, it's a huge problem for coalition forces, because Islamist terrorists, unlike the Iraqi people themselves, have no stake in seeing local conditions improve, said Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What can be done about the terror attacks?

Coalition forces continue to hunt down remnants of the Saddam regime and extremists. Many analysts have called for deployments of additional troops to provide security; the Bush administration has resisted that idea. Sealing and patrolling the borders with Iraq's neighbors would be one obvious anti-terror step— but given the length of the borders, the limited size of the coalition force, and the lack of cooperation from some of Iraq's neighbors, such a step may not be immediately possible. Increasing the size of the new Iraqi security forces is another option, but some experts, such as retired Army Major General William Nash, director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, say that this is a long-term, not a short-term, solution.

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