Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Evidence is growing that al-Qaida is making its presence felt in the recent wave of bombings in Iraq, which U.S. officials say is becoming a magnet for Islamic militants worldwide who seek a violent confrontation with America.
The suicide bombers who struck multiple targets in coordinated strikes last week used 5,000 pounds of plastic explosives and diversionary tactics that are characteristic of al-Qaida operations, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told The Associated Press.
Another scenario was reported Friday by The New York Times, which said U.S. officials believe Saddam Hussein himself may be playing a significant role in coordinating and directing attacks by his loyalists.
The Times, citing unidentified senior officials, said recent intelligence reports have portrayed Saddam as a catalyst or even a leader in the armed opposition, probably from a base of operations near his hometown of Tikrit.
Defense, intelligence and national security officials sought Friday to minimize that possibility, however. Discussing the situation only on grounds of anonymity, they said some Iraqis have been asserting for several months that Saddam is involved. But these officials said they are not certain how reliable the information is and said there are no radio intercepts or other types of evidence to corroborate the reports.
In a speech Thursday night, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said attacks are practically inevitable as long as Saddam remains on the loose.
"The fact that he's alive is unhelpful," Rumsfeld told the conservative think tank Empower America. "We do need to catch him and I think we will."
The way last week's attacks were carried out has signaled to American investigators that they could be seeing a change in tactics by those attempting to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq, the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said in an interview Thursday.
"We're looking at that as the start of something that may be forewarning of future events," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Prior to Monday, bombers in Iraq largely had used relatively crude devices cobbled together from old Soviet-era munitions. "People went out and got anything they could find," the official said.
But each of the five vehicles used in the latest attacks, which targeted the International Red Cross headquarters and four Iraqi police stations, was packed with 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives, the official said. One of the five bombers was prevented by police from detonating his device and was taken into custody.
The four successful bombings, timed within 45 minutes of each other on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, killed 40 people in the deadliest single attack since U.S. forces took over the city in April.
In at least three of the attacks, witnesses said a vehicle was used to distract or confuse perimeter guards to allow the bomber's vehicle to slip through. Al-Qaida attackers used lead vehicles to overcome security and get explosives-laden vehicles into guarded compounds housing Westerners in the May 12 bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Those bombings killed 35 people, including nine attackers.
Outside experts said al-Qaida tactics could easily be mimicked by other terrorist groups.
"The problem is, these are the hallmarks of a lot of people," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The weapons are there, and people are gaining the experience."
The issue of who is behind the escalating attacks in Iraq is proving to be one of the most difficult and puzzling for U.S. officials. President Bush said in a news conference this week that both Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters might be behind the attacks.
A senior defense official on Wednesday said two captured members of the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group Ansar al-Islam have said Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a top aide to Saddam, was working with the group on some of the attacks. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Plastic explosives previously have been found among the munitions believed left over from Saddam's rule. Coalition forces have seized large caches of weapons, including blocks of plastic explosives last week in a government building in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. A raid last month in Tikrit uncovered 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives.
The FBI has traced the particular explosives used in Monday's attacks to a manufacturer outside Iraq, the counterterrorism official said.
The official said American investigators believe Iraq is becoming a magnet and proving ground for Islamic militants from around the world. The United States has evidence that hundreds of militants have entered Iraq to battle Americans, much as they did a quarter-century ago to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld estimated 200 to 300 foreign fighters have been captured in Iraq, most of them from Syria and Lebanon.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)