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ZARQAWI NETWORK

Terror effort seen focused on Baghdad

BAGHDAD -- An insurgency led by Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has made the Iraqi capital its main battleground, perhaps in the hopes of swaying the outcome of US elections, a senior Western official said.

''Baghdad is increasingly the major theater of the conflict," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''It's very hard to control a major city. It's very difficult to stop insurgents from infiltrating."

The official said in a weekend interview that Zarqawi's Fallujah-based network has been behind insurgent assaults against US-led forces throughout the country, including the center of Baghdad and in many cities where American and Iraqi forces have lost control.

The official is familiar with the thinking of the leaders of the Iraqi interim government, as well as of officials in the US-led coalition in Iraq.

In the past two weeks, insurgents have kidnapped two Americans and a Briton from a villa in central Baghdad, clashed with US and Iraqi troops less than a mile from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital, and repeatedly struck Iraqi police and national guard with suicide car bombs.

The United States contends that a series of missile strikes in Fallujah over the past week seriously degraded the Zarqawi network, killing dozens of operatives and destroying many safe houses.

But, the official conceded, the network has increased its rate of attacks in September and is effectively contesting territory in Baghdad as well as provincial cities including Fallujah, Ramadi, Baquba, and Samarra.

''It's a sign of them deciding that they have to seize back the initiative," the official said of a series of hostage-takings, car bombings, and firefights in the Iraqi capital all claimed by or attributed to Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group.

The official also said that a concerted terror campaign in Iraq could be designed to affect the outcome of the US elections.

''And you know, they may be trying to do the same thing that they were able to do in Madrid," he said, referring to the defeat of Spain's conservative government in March elections a few days after a series of train bombings killed 191 people. The new left-leaning government pulled its troops out of Iraq soon after.

Military officials in Iraq have begun preparing campaigns to push insurgents out of cities where US forces and the Iraqi government had effectively withdrawn.

After heavy fighting last month, US troops drove Mahdi Army fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr out of Najaf, and forces loyal to the cleric relinquished control of Basra without a fight. American soldiers also drove insurgents out of the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar this month, and Iraqi forces were allowed to reenter Samarra, a Sunni triangle resistance stronghold, a week ago after Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government negotiated a cease-fire with local leaders.

However, insurgents retain the upper hand in several key cities, among them the Zarqawi strongholds of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baquba, and are spreading their reach into Baghdad, staging repeated operations in the heart of the capital.

While Ba'athists and Iraqi nationalists are responsible for much of the resistance activity, the official said, the latest wave of violence could be traced to the Zarqawi network.

''I think you have a very specific spike in activity by the Zarqawi offshoot of Al Qaeda, operating out of Fallujah," the official said.

The official said that the Iraqi government needed more, better-trained Iraqi troops to fight alongside US forces to drive insurgents out of contested cities and establish meaningful control for the central government, before January national elections.

''You need the ability to hold cities and other areas that you retake through military action or through some kind of negotiation," the official said. ''You have to put in a significantly large number of forces to suppress or drive out whatever insurgent cells are there."

When changing tactics from a full-on assault to a postinsurgency occupation -- what the official called ''shifting from Stalingrad to Northern Ireland" -- Iraqi Army units are in a better position than US forces to solidify control over an urban area than local police who are from that town and could be intimidated, the official said.

For example, this month marks the third time in a year that US and Iraqi forces have reentered Samarra after insurgents took effective control over thecity's streets. According to the official, the Iraqi government needs to deploy Iraqi battalions from a well-trained national army into such cities.

The most critical test ahead for the Iraqi government, as well as for US policy in the country, are the January elections, the official said. But the official said there was no need for more than the 130,000 American and 25,000 other foreign troops currently in Iraq.

''You need their capability as a . . . quick reaction force all over the country, people who can shoot their way into places very quickly," the official said.

Suicide car bomb attacks like those that have killed more than 250 Iraqi civilians over the past week don't have any military significance, the official said.

''What we're getting thrown at us is the functional equivalent of harassing and interdictory fire," the official said. ''But it makes people nervous. It makes us aware that they're still there."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

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