An Iraqi resistance fighter traveling as an escort was quickly out of the car, speaking to the group in a somber, authoritative tone, insisting they let us go. A furious curbside debate flared. My escort continued to plead, dropping the names of high-level insurgent leaders. After what seemed like an eternity, the insurgents relented.
They pushed me back into our Mazda sedan and ordered us to leave. We were lucky. The fighters included Iraqis, Syrians and Jordanians. They were members of Attawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War), a militant group loyal to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq. The group's black flags flutter from the palm trees and buildings along the Baghdad boulevard where we were stopped, an area known as Haifa Street. It's a no-go zone for U.S. forces.
The fact that insurgents tied to al-Zarqawi are patrolling one of Baghdad's major thoroughfareswithin mortar range of the U.S. embassyis an indication of just how much of the country is beyond the control of U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government. It also reflects the extent to which jihadis linked to al-Zarqawi, 37, the Jordanian believed to be al-Qaeda's chief operative in Iraq, have become the driving forces behind the insurgency and are expanding its zone of influence. Though the U.S. has long believed that al-Zarqawi's group is using Fallujah as a base to stage operations, the militants appear to have also consolidated their grip on parts of the capital. Last week al-Zarqawi's forces launched one of their deadliest offensives yet, setting off at least a dozen car bombs in attacks across the country. On Tuesday, Sept. 14, alone, the insurgents killed at least 59 Iraqis, including 47 in a car bombing outside a Baghdad police station packed with men waiting to apply for jobs. Twenty U.S. troops died in seven days of fighting, bringing the total for September so far to 54. With militants roaming unmolested in parts of Baghdad, no one is safe. One week after gunmen abducted two Italian women from their home, a group of insurgents raided a house in an affluent Baghdad area and seized two Americans and a British engineer without firing a shot.
The violent reality of life in Iraq stands in contrast to the Bush Administration's sunny assessments of the country's progress toward democracy. A growing chorus of lawmakers, soldiers and U.S. military and intelligence officials warn that the U.S. faces a potential disaster in Iraq. Critics of the Administration pounced on reports saying a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which the cia gave to the White House in July, lays out a distressing view of Iraq's future. According to a U.S. official familiar with the estimate, it envisions three possible scenarios for how events might unfold over the next 18 months. The official says the estimate foresees, "at best, a situation that would be, in terms of security, tenuous and, at worst, a trend line that could point in the direction of a civil war."
Officials from the U.S. military and the interim Iraqi government are playing down the significance of the intelligence estimate. "It says what we've been saying for months," a Pentagon civilian says. "There's a 1-in-3 chance of civil war." Officials insist that a sufficient portion of Iraq will be pacified in order to hold elections as scheduled in January 2005. But the insurgents have shown an impressive ability to regenerate. Jeffrey White, a former senior analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, says there could be "as many as 100,000 insurgents," including those who provide food, clothing and shelter. "This is not a small number of people," White says. And they're proving hard to kill. On Friday, Iraqi troops backed by Americans swept onto Haifa Street. Al-Zarqawi's militants responded with two car bombs. Heavy fighting could be heard for four hours. Speaking by phone during the battle, an insurgent relayed to Time a message from al-Zarqawi's foot soldiers: "We have already slipped away. The others have gone to their homes. No one will find them. We are safe." Indeed, once the Iraqi troops pulled back from the area, the insurgents reappeared.
The U.S. still characterizes the insurgency as a loosely organized network that includes former members of the Baath ruling party, homegrown jihadis and foreign terrorists. But interviews with insurgents and materials obtained by Time suggest that the most active and violent elements of the insurgency now come under the sway of al-Zarqawi and his allies. A series of audiocassettes obtained by Time provides rare insight into their mind-set. In hours of sermons and "seminars," as they are called, leaders of Attawhid wal Jihad exhort their rank and file to slaughter Iraqis cooperating with the U.S. and the interim government. On one tape, a man named Sheik Abu Anas al-Shami, one of al-Zarqawi's key commanders and a member of the organization's religious committee, preaches that any nation built on secular principles is "in the light of Islamic law a tyrannical infidel and blasphemous state." Anyone associated with it, he continuesespecially soldiers and police, whether or not they are good Muslimsmay be murdered, as "they do not represent themselves; they are means in the hands of the tyrants." Even Muslims "who pray" may be slaughtered to punish the Iraqi government or U.S. forces. "If the infidels have good people among them, and our fighting against them necessitates annihilating these good people, we are permitted to kill them because we are ordered (by God) to do so," he says.
A second tape (both are undated) obtained by Time purportedly records the voice of al-Zarqawi describing U.S. forces as "oppressors" and "doglike aliens" and criticizing the Western media for denigrating the will and character of Muslims. But the target of al-Zarqawi's harshest criticism is an erstwhile ally: Harith al-Dhari, an Iraqi Sunni Muslim leader and chairman of the powerful Association of Muslim Scholars. U.S. intelligence suspects al-Dhari of helping fund and organize elements of the insurgency. But al-Dhari has criticized al-Zarqawi's practice of decapitating hostages. On the tape, al-Zarqawi calls al-Dhari a coward "who accepted humiliation" and accuses him of "extending (his) hands to the enemy."
Sources inside the insurgency say al-Zarqawi's willingness to sanction terrorist attacks against all civilians has created splits among the various rebel groups. Nationalist guerrillas, who make up the vast majority of fighters but object to killing innocent Iraqis, say the armed insurgency is being taken over by the well-funded and motivated international jihadis answering al-Qaeda's call for a holy war. As a result, nationalist insurgent groups are attempting to create their own leadership and forge ties with moderate Islamists based in Fallujah. Their goal is to create a political party that can contest and win elections, held after U.S. withdrawal, in areas like Fallujah. "Thinking has started to move toward asking what happens after the Americans leave," says a nationalist commander who asked to be identified as Abu Khalil. "So far we have only shown that we know how to act militarily, but the military wing cannot lead the country into the future."
Meetings aimed at establishing a political face for the insurgency have been under way for months. An earlier conference collapsed beneath the weight of the conflicting interests of the various groups. But Abu Khalil says his group is trying to spark a debate among the insurgents on what kind of country they want to create. Whereas the jihadis are aiming to establish a Taliban-style Islamic state in Iraq, the nationalists say they are willing to participate in a democratic Iraq, though one that is independent of foreign influence. The push for political legitimacy flows from their success at fending off U.S. forces. "Things have moved so fast, the events are ahead of our thinking," says Abu Khalil. "A year ago, the Americans' departure was a dream, but now it's realizable. We control entire cities, and we're looking to expand."
For now that prospect remains unpalatable to U.S. commanders. The U.S. says it won't tolerate insurgent control over wide swaths of territory. A strategy aimed at denying the rebels safe haven in towns and cities under their control and installing competent local administrations is under way in Shi'ite areas south of Baghdad. The northern Sunni stronghold of Samarra is being targeted in a similar push, with U.S. troops ousting fighters and returning a civil administration. But in no-go zones like Fallujah, enlisting the help of rebels willing to part ways with al-Zarqawi may be the only way the U.S. can avoid bloody battles down the road. It's hardly the arrangement Washington had in mind. But if the U.S. hopes to avert disaster in Iraq, it's going to need all the friends it can get.
With reporting by Timothy J. Burger and Mark Thompson/Washington