Spread of Iraqi Insurgency Feared in Arab World

As the insurgency in Iraq evolves into a sectarian conflict, there are growing fears in the Arab world that it could spread to other parts of the region. Iraqi insurgents are now battling both U.S. troops and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. There's increasing concern that the continuing political deadlock in Iraq is feeding the insurgency. Speaking yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, said the insurgents can be policed if the U.S. wins Iraqi hearts and minds, which he said forces haven't done yet.

General ANTHONY ZINNI (Former Commander, U.S. Central Command): They need either fear, apathy or sympathy. If they get a combination of those three and right now they have a combination, if there's a viable government, there's an opportunity for jobs, if there's a program that shows hope for the future for their children, they're going to turn against these people. We haven't given them that in three years.

MONTAGNE: That was General Anthony Zinni speaking yesterday on Meet the Press.

INSKEEP: There's now fear among Arab leaders that sectarian violence will spread to other parts of the region. Iraq's Sunni insurgents are battling both U.S. troops and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and they have many sympathizers in Jordan and other Sunni Arab states.

NPR's Debra Amos reports on the beginnings of the insurgency, how early warning signs may have been ignored and why it could get worse. And she begins her report from Amman in neighboring Jordan.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In the comfortable living room in the Jordanian capital, Hudefa Assam(ph) listens to his latest CD. It's a tribute to Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency. These are songs of suffering now and the victory to come.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: The CD is a homegrown Jordanian product passed hand to hand among sympathetic Jordanians and many of the one million Iraqis who have fled to Jordan. These are the true believers, convinced the Sunni insurgency is a legitimate resistance to the Americans and now against Iraq's Shiite-dominated governments, which they insist is backed by Iran.

Assam, in a red baseball cap and close-cropped beard, claims ties with the Iraqi fighters.

Mr. HUDEFA ASSAM (Insurgent Sympathizer): I can tell you that the Iraqi resistance are improving day by day and getting a very good experience.

AMOS: Assam is a self-described Jihadi, from a family with a history of Islamist militancy. His father, Abdullah Assam, was a mentor to Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. He helped recruit Arabs to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Hudefa Assam says he trained in Afghan camps as a teenager and later went to Bosnia to aid Muslims there.

But when he first got to the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2003 to urge Jihad against the Americans, Fallujahn residents told him to turn around and go back to Jordan.

Mr. ASSAM: They were so happy about the falling of Saddam regimes. They were saying that the Americans did for them the best service they were wishing in their lives.

AMOS: That feeling didn't last long, he says. Soon the Sunnis of Fallujah were asking for help. To understand the change, turn back to a story first heard in the spring of 2003.

This is the home of Mohammed al-Azawi(ph), a wealthy merchant in Fallujah. The town was untouched during the invasion. The first U.S. soldiers didn't reach here until two weeks after the fall of Baghdad. By all accounts, they were culturally unprepared for this conservative town. No one in the unit spoke Arabic. They had no translators.

In an interview made at the time, Azawi said American tactics shocked him.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-AZAWI (Wealthy Merchant, Fallujah): (Speaking Arabic)

Mr. AL-AZAWI: (Through translator) The Americans were harassing people when they were checking them. They would put a man on the street, and they would put their feet over him to check him. They even checked the women. And you know that that is insulting in my city.

AMOS: Then, on April 28th, 2003, during a demonstration against the occupation, U.S. soldiers opened fire, killing more than a dozen people.

Mr. AL-AZAWI: (Speaking Arabic)

Mr. AL-AZAWI: (Through translator) It shocked the people about the reality of the Americans. That massacre that happened, it was tremendous. It was dramatic. It was, I don't know, it was horrible.

AMOS: That day marked the birth of the Iraqi resistance, says Assam.

Mr. ASSAM: It was an Iraqi, it was a pure Iraqi resistance. The people of Fallujah, the people of these areas, themselves they have started the resistance.

AMOS: Foreign fighters were also arriving, none more violent than former Jordanian prison inmate Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who would become the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Back in Washington, U.S. intelligence agencies were preparing a top-secret assessment of the growing violence against U.S. troops completed in October of 2003. The details have recently become public. U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House there was an insurgency and it had deep local roots that could lead to a civil war if the concerns of Iraq's Sunnis were ignored.

Wayne White was a veteran State Department analyst at the time.

Mr. WAYNE WHITE (Former State Department Analyst): When we started our deliberations, which went through five drafts, I was the only one in the room who said that the insurgency was going to be a serious and growing threat. The rest of the intelligence community came around pretty fast after that, because, for one thing, the numbers started rising.

AMOS: The final document described an insurgency made up of some local Islamists and foreign fighters; but there was a more important group, says White.

Mr. WHITE: And I wanted to broaden that, you know, to include a number of other categories of people and, in fact, invented an unflattering term, which I'm not very happy about. This is all I could think of in the meeting, which was POI's, pissed off Iraqi's.

AMOS: And here, Hudefa Assam agrees.

Mr. ASSAM: It was because they were attacked.

AMOS: So you understand POI?

Mr. ASSAM: Yes. Yes, about anger, exactly. About the fury.

AMOS: The Sunni Arab insurgency has grown over the last three years. The Director of Defense Intelligence told Congress the movement remains strong and resilient.

Insurgents have learned to adapt to U.S. tactics and seem to be taking public opinion into account. In the last year, many Sunni insurgent groups have challenged Zarqawi's terror tactics, which has led to open internal battles, says Assam.

Mr. ASSAM: And finally he has to change himself and his way; or he has to leave. We're still working very hard on that.

AMOS: But in the last month, the split has been put aside, he says.

Mr. ASSAM: Five main parties of the Sunnis were united with Zarqawi, and they're working together now.

AMOS: Iraqi and Western analysts say the rift ended with the upsurge of Sunni-Shia killing following the bombing of a revered Shiite Shrine north of Baghdad.

Joost Hilterman, of the International Crisis Group, says that violence explains the newfound unity among foreign fighters and the Iraqi insurgents.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMAN (Spokesman, International Crisis Group): If there was any chance for a rift, it was destroyed in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. And as long as there attacks on this Shiite Islamist group operating through Interior Ministry, for example, against Sunni Arabs as a community, the insurgents will remain unified, as a protector, of course.

AMOS: To Adnan Abu Auday(ph), a Jordanian analyst, the resilience of the Sunni insurgency is no surprise, because many Sunnis feel left out of the new Iraq.

Mr. ADNAM ABU AUDAY (Analyst): It's a war between losers and winners. And this is the right way how to approach it. The losers are the Sunnis, and the winners are the Shiites.

The Americans, it seems, a little bit too late, conceived of what had happened.

AMOS: Like many in the Arab world, Abu Auday believes a civil war is already underway in Iraq. The shockwaves are being felt across the region.

Mr. ABU AUDAY: What's happening in Iraq, what has happened in Iraq after the invasion, is very dangerous. It has been a spark for this kind of a new sectarian war and conflict that produces instability in the whole region.

AMOS: A fear in Jordan because there're so many Iraqi's here and so many Jordanians who identify with Sunni Muslims and believe they have a stake in what happens next door.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Amman.

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