An Iraqi villager went looking for help from U.S. intelligence officers in Baghdad last week. He was afraid. His hamlet, about 30 miles east of the capital, had become practically a "ghost town" in recent years, he said. Within the last few weeks, though, a group of 40 or 50 armed Iraqis had arrived from the towns of Al Fallujah and Ar Ramadi, more than 50 miles away. The men were using the abandoned buildings for military training. Some were former officers from Saddam Hussein's armed forces, others were identified by the Iraqi as "Wahhabi"-- Muslims akin to the extremist sect that inspired Al Qaeda. "At first I wasn't sure [the story] was real," says a U.S intelligence officer. "But now, all of a sudden, these Wahhabi guys have been appearing. We're hearing that word a lot more: Wahhabi."
The Americans are still checking out the villager's story, but they already share his misgivings. Iraq's Wahhabis used to be mercilessly persecuted by Saddam, who feared their Taliban-style version of Sunni Islam. Now, however, there is growing suspicion that the once banned extremists are teaming up with the dictator's old Baath Party loyalists to create the beginnings of an underground insurgency. "The war has not ended," declared Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, after a string of bloody skirmishes last week in Al Fallujah. He quickly sent in an entire brigade of the Third Infantry Division, some 4,000 troops, to get the area under control. But two days later, a hit-and-run attack wounded five Americans and killed one, bringing the U.S. death toll to a dozen in only 11 days. Al Fallujah has been a center of anti-U.S. hostility since late April, when more than a dozen civilians died in clashes between American troops and Iraqi protesters. "We're getting attacked all the time now, day and night, it doesn't matter when," says Lt. Burris Wolsieffer of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, camped at an airfield just west of town.
Saddam's loyalists may be relatively few in number, but they're everywhere. NEWSWEEK met with one last week at a police station in Baghdad, almost under the noses of U.S. troops. The 42-year-old Iraqi was an agent in the regime's ruthless Secret Security Organization. He's in hiding now; many Iraqis would kill him on sight for his role in the massacre of more than 700 Shiites at the village of Radwaniyah, south of --Baghdad, in the spring of 1991. Many of his old colleagues have fled "to the provinces," he said--particularly to places like Al Fallujah. He laughed: "The killers have escaped."
And they have nothing left to lose. Under Saddam's dictatorship, they were the most privileged people in Iraq. Now they're outcasts--but they're not giving up. American forces in Al Fallujah recently offered an amnesty to senior Baathist members if they would only "denounce or renounce" their connection to the former ruling party. Not one showed up. Members of the now outlawed political group are banding together to form secret new parties with names like Al Awda ("The Return") and April 28 (in honor of Saddam's birthday).
Most senior Baathists have one essential thing in common with the Wahhabis: they're Sunnis. That branch of Islam includes roughly 90 percent of the world's Muslims--but in Iraq, the Shiites outnumber them. Saddam was born a Sunni, and in the early 1990s he tried to reinforce his rule by adopting the rhetoric of militant Islam. Even before that, Sunnis got the best of everything in Iraq, as long as they didn't challenge the regime. They formed the core of Saddam's brutal secret police and intelligence services, his elite Republican Guard and his ultraloyal Fedayeen militia. Most high-ranking officers in the regular armed forces were Sunni, and so were the leading members of most professions. Now these regime loyalists have become prime targets for the blandishments of Sunni militants.
The Sunni resistance is looking all over for support. In the city of Najaf, the spiritual home of Shiism, a delegation from Ar Ramadi arrived two weeks ago. The visitors urged the city's senior cleric, Sayeed Sistani, to issue a jihad against the Americans. Sistani refused. Even so, Shiite clerics are worried. Years ago, they say, Saddam's secret police planted a network of undercover agents in the Shiite community. Some were exposed and killed after the war--but not all. There's a strong chance that former members of Saddam's apparatus could use their secret Shiite connections to foment anti-U.S. unrest. "This is happening," a senior Shiite cleric from the prominent Sadr clan said last week. "The Sunni crazies are getting instructions from above somewhere." While the Ar Ramadi delegation was in Najaf, U.S. and Iraqi security forces in the Shiite city of Karbala, an hour to the north, were arresting a group of men from Al Fallujah. The bust turned up 1,000 rounds of ammunition, along with mortars and grenades. "I'd say they're still well underground, trying to organize," says Lt. Col. Bill Dolan, head of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment's first squadron, northwest of Al Fallujah.
In Al Fallujah the organization seems to be growing stronger every day. Townspeople often greet American patrols with jeers--and, increasingly, with open violence. U.S. intelligence says the Baathists are offering big money to locals who participate in attacks. A tank had its treads blown to scrap metal last week when it ran over a tripwire attached to several pounds of TNT on the highway. The next day a man threw a grenade at U.S. troops in broad daylight. They shot him and he fell, but when they approached to see if he was dead or alive, the man threw another grenade he had concealed beneath him. Two Americans were hurt. For weeks now, troops in the region have noticed men on motorcycles tailing them, then zipping away when U.S. troops have tried to engage them. The encounters were particularly worrisome because motorcycles used to be a trademark of Saddam's Fedayeen. "There have been suspicions that they were using the motorcycles to scope out the area and pick out patterns," says Sgt. 1/c Michael Lindenbusch. "It appears they actually got the picture they wanted. Now they're starting to act on it."
So far the Americans have made little progress against the resistance. Colonel Dolan thought his luck was changing last week when he heard that high-ranking officers from Saddam's El Quds militia were hiding in a cave beside the Euphrates. A reconnaissance team had spotted eight Iraqis with AK-47s nearby a few days earlier. But when Dolan's troops reached the scene with a full contingent of armored vehicles, helicopters and heavy artillery, they found nothing. Dolan could only shake his head at the whole impossible situation. "You don't know who to trust and what to action on," he said. "You don't know where or who your enemy is." An awful sense is growing that the real battle may have only begun.