Foreign detainees are few in Iraq
by Peter Eisler and Tom Squitieri
Suspected foreign fighters account for less than 2% of the 5,700 captives being held as security threats in Iraq, a strong indication that Iraqis are largely responsible for the stubborn insurgency.
Since last August, coalition forces have detained 17,700 people in Iraq who were considered to be enemy fighters or security risks, and about 400 were foreign nationals, according to figures supplied last week by the U.S. military command handling detention operations in Iraq. Most of those detainees were freed after a review board found they didn’t pose significant threats. About 5,700 remain in custody, 90 of them non-Iraqis.
The numbers represent one of the most precise measurements to date of the composition of the insurgency and suggest that some Bush administration officials have overstated the role of foreign holy warriors, or jihadists, from other Arab states. The figures also suggest that Iraq isn’t as big a magnet for foreign terrorists as some administration critics have asserted.
In Ramadi, where Marines have fended off coordinated attacks by hundreds of insurgents, the fighters “are all locals,” says Lt. Col. Paul Kennedy, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. “There are very few foreign fighters.”
Despite the relatively small number of foreign nationals in custody, officials believe that non-Iraqis are playing key roles in organizing or financing attacks on U.S. troops and that foreign Muslim militants are behind some of the deadliest suicide bombings. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian al-Qaeda operative, has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings and assassinations in Iraq.
Of the 90 foreign captives, more than half are Syrian. That has prompted President Bush to complain publicly that Syria has failed to secure its border with Iraq and ensure that the country isn’t used as a staging ground for foreign fighters. Suspected foreign fighters from Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Arab nations also are being held.
“Any number of foreign fighters is troubling,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said last week in an interview. “It demonstrates that terrorists also understand what is at stake in Iraq.”
The Pentagon’s focus on foreign fighters initially grew from intelligence that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda leaders enlisted fighters from outside Iraq to resist the U.S. occupation. One top general from Saddam’s Baath Party “acknowledged foreign fighter recruitment throughout the Middle East” during questioning late last year, according to a classified description of his interrogation obtained by USA TODAY.
Contributing: Gregg Zoroya in Iraq