Is Zarqawi Really the Culprit?

The stark fact is that we don't even know for sure how many legs Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi has, let alone whether the Jordanian terrorist, purportedly tied to al Qaeda, is really behind the latest outrages in Iraq. What is clear is that the Iraq conflict has elevated suicide bombing as a weapon of war to a scale never before seen, not only in numbers of victims, but in numbers of attackers, and their ability to field large number of suiciders at the same time.

Aside from the evidence suggested in a letter attributed to Zarqawi intercepted by officials earlier this year, we don't really know much more now than we did when Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case before the U.N. Security Council for war in Iraq in February, 2003. In that presentation, Powell cited Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad--where he may or may not have gotten an artificial limb fitted after a wound suffered in Afghanistan--as, if not a smoking gun, at least a smidgen of a powder burn linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. The letter so neatly and comprehensively lays out a blueprint for fomenting strife with the Shia, and later the Kurds, that it's a little hard to believe in it unreservedly. It came originally from Kurdish sources who have a long history of disinformation and dissimulation. It was an electronic document on a CD-ROM, so there's no way to authenticate signature or handwriting, aside from the testimony of those captured with it, about which the authorities have not released much information.

The other problem with Zarqawi is his history of working for the Iraqi regime, and also apparently with the Iranians. That's a pretty hard trick--Iran was a bitter enemy of the Saddam Hussein government. Then again, Ansar al-Islam, the Iraqi jihad group, has allegedly had some Iranian support, even though its main role was to do Saddam's bidding in its war against the more mainstream Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Is Zarqawi Ansar al-Islam, or al Qaeda, or both? And even if he is, what really connects him to this week's bombings, except an impulse to find a bete noire, to put a face on the faceless terror. The commanding general of the 1st Armored Division, which patrols Baghdad, said in a briefing March 4 that "it's far more than a supposition and far less than empirical evidence" to say that Zarqawi was involved in the blasts Tuesday. "It's a very educated guess." Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Zarqawi as culprit was a leaflet signed by an unprecedented 12 underground opposition groups, insisting that he had been killed already by American bombs; the leaflets were distributed after the Karbala and Baghdad blasts in the Sunni triangle towns of Falluja and Ramadi. And they may even be right. "There is no direct evidence of whether he's alive or dead at this point," said Brigadier General David Rodriquez, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, at a press conference Thursday.

As far as Adel Abdul Mehdi, an Iraqi governing council spokesman, is concerned, the strongest evidence of an al Qaeda role in the attacks in Iraq is indirect, but persuasive. "Suicide bombing is just not in the Iraqi character, and never has been," he said. Generally that's true. But the first suicide bombing of this conflict was not only an Iraqi, but an Iraqi Kurd, who blew up his car at the entrance to Kurdish headquarters a month before the war started, killing an Australian news cameraman and four bystanders. And the second was reportedly an Iraqi army officer, who used an Iraqi taxi to approach an American checkpoint, blowing himself up and killing four American soldiers, south of Baghdad on March 29, before the fall of the capital. On April 3, two Iraqi women, made a video tape vowing to become suicide bombers and then blew themselves up at a checkpoint north of Baghdad, killing several American soldiers. One of the women was pregnant. All of the Iraqi bombers were wearing suicide belts in the Palestinian style.

In one of his last public pronouncements, Saddam's information minister, Muhammed Sayid al-Sahaf, boasted that they Iraqis had 4,000 suicide bombers ready to deploy. As if to confirm that, on April 12, a few days after the fall, U.S. troops found a cache inside a school that contained 300 suicide vests, filled with C-4 explosives and sophisticated detonators (the dead man switch, specifically, designed to go off if the bearer is shot and loosens his grip). There was also evidence that at least 80 other vests had been removed from the site before U.S. troops discovered it. One such vest was worn by a man who detonated a bomb outside the Palestine Hotel on April 9, killing himself and a U.S. Marine. Then in late April, a cache of 800 suicide vests was found in a factory in south Baghdad; officers described these vests as highly sophisticated in design as well.

But those early fears of a wave of Iraqi suicide missions did not at first pan out. Sahaf's record for inaccuracy held; after April 9, suicide attacks were all but unknown in the first months of the occupation. When they did resume, there was scant evidence of Iraqi involvement, at least as perpetrators. Perhaps the vests did not seem a very efficient method of attack; all of the suicide bombings since then have employed vehicles, ranging from trucks and buses to cars and ambulances, with massive charges, typically 1,000 pounds of C4 plastic explosives. The new spate began in August when a suicide bomber destroyed the Canal Hotel, killing Sergio de Mello, the UN representative, and some 20 persons. A short time later there was a remarkably well-coordinated attack in which five suicide bombers targeted the ICRC headquarters and four police stations. Some 40 persons were killed in all, but police managed to foil one of the attackers and captured him. He was a Syrian, or at least had Syrian identity papers. In the run up to the war, Syria had issued 2,000 passports to Syrian volunteers going to fight on behalf of Saddam Hussein, and several thousand Palestinians reportedly transited Syria to Iraq as well. In the ICRC and police station bombings, the attackers were highly organized, striking within minutes of one another, and using decoy or lead vehicles to get the bomb-laden vehicles, each with 1,000 pounds of plastique, past the security cordons. That was precisely the technique employed by al Qaeda in the May 12 Riyadh bombings which killed 35 people and involved nine suicide bombers. Foreign volunteers were also sent into Iraq from Lebanon and Syria, especially from Palestinian refugee camps; some of those who sent them, like Colonel Munir Maqdah in the Ain al Hilweh camp in Sidon, have openly advocated suicide bombing tactics against the Americans, as well as against Israelis. In an interview with me in September, Maqtah denied that he had dispatched Palestinian suicide bombers, as he had been earlier quoted as saying, but added, "the Americans are occupiers and anyone who occupies any country, there can be no security and no safety for them."

There is no evidence that Iraqis were involved in this latest series of suicide attacks. In aborted attacks, perpetrators have either had foreign passports or no nationality; in all of the attacks that succeeded, there's been nothing left to identify the attackers. In fact, in numerous cases the attackers apparently shaved their heads and donned full-length masks before driving to their doom. The shaving is an act of piety but the masks seem designed to make sure no one recognizes them.

One thing certainly is clear: there's a plentiful supply of willing victims. So far, there have been at least 46 suicide bombers since the war began, and they've managed to cause at least 702 deaths--using the US military's lowball estimates for Karbala and Baghdad this week (add 154 if using the Iraqi Governing Council totals). All but a handful of those bombers and victims died since August. The attacks have been remarkably unsuccessful in killing coalition forces; 13 American soldiers, 5 Bulgarian troops, 2 Thais and 20 Italian coalition members also died by suicide bombs. But most of the victims have of course been Iraqis, with Iraqi police as the biggest single target, and innocent bystanders the most likely to die. Intelligence sources in Baghdad say the community reckons that as of Sept. 1, there was a pool of 100 suicide bombers, mainly recruited and organized by Ansar al-Islam. These sources estimate that 50 suicide bombers have died so far; but these sources, of course, subscribe to the Zarqawi-as-culprit school, without offering much in the way of detail. Still, from what we know of suicide bombers' indoctrination in other places, like Sri Lanka and Palestine, it often takes months to brainwash someone to the point where they're willing to kill themselves. That may well mean there are a lot more willing bombers in training, wherever they come from.

Only a week before the Karbala outrage, American troops leafleting a Baghdad neighborhood were fired upon from inside a house, and returned fire, killing Abu Muhammed Hamza, one of Zarqawi's lieutenants who was carrying a Jordanian passport and boasting a closet full of fake ID's, C4 explosives, detonators and--a suicide vest. This is the closest they've yet come to establishing a solid link between Zarqawi, foreign fighters and suicide bombing, if not explicitly with al Qaeda. At a press conference in Baghdad, the coalition's deputy chief of operations, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, showed off photos taken at the arrest scene: "this is a suicide vest that was found inside the house at which Hamza was killed, contains a plastic explosive, ball bearings, blasting caps, a trigger device and a hand grenade. This satchel is made to loop over the neck and be detonated by hand. Inside of the house, you can see an extensive amount of explosives. There was a pre-made improvised explosive device, a container full of plastic explosives over here. These were a number of suitcases that were found with wires, batteries, items that would be necessary for triggering explosive devices. Outside the house were found some barrels of sodium nitrate, some crates with some Soviet Cyrillic writing on the side, some more bags of sodium nitrate, and other items unknown." There was one other thing: photographs of the elusive Zarqawi, although we couldn't tell how many legs he had.