Sat, Oct 23, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Iraq insurgents rich and plentiful, US officials admit

OVERT AND COVERT The resistance in Iraq is much bigger than first thought, with up to 12,000 active members and a seemingly unlimited supply of money available

AGENCIES , BAGHDAD AND MOSUL, IRAQ, AND SKOPJE, MACEDONIA

Senior US officials are beginning to assemble a new portrait of the insurgency that has continued to inflict casualties on US and Iraqi forces, showing that it has significantly more fighters and far greater financial resources than previously estimated.

When foreign fighters and the network of a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are counted with home-grown insurgents, the core of the resistance numbers between 8,000 and 12,000 people, a tally that grows to more than 20,000 when active sympathizers or covert accomplices are included, the officials said.

These estimates contrast sharply with earlier intelligence reports, in which the number of insurgents have varied from as few as 2,000 to a maximum of 7,000 fighters. The revised estimate is influencing the military campaign in Iraq, but has not prompted a wholesale review of the strategy, officials said.

In recent interviews with the New York Times, military and other government officials in Iraq and Washington said that the core of the Iraqi insurgency now consists of as many as 50 militant cells that draw on "unlimited money" from an underground financial network run by former Baath Party leaders and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's relatives.

Their financing is supplemented in great part by wealthy Saudi donors and Islamic charities that funnel large sums of cash through Syria, according to these officials, who have access to detailed intelligence reports.

Only half of the estimated US$1 billion the Saddam government put in Syrian banks before the war has been recovered, Pentagon officials said. There is no tally of money flowing through Syria to Iraq from wealthy Saudis or Islamic charities, but one Pentagon official said the figure is "significant."

US military and Pentagon officials continue to argue that as Iraqi security forces increase in numbers and effectiveness, they will be able to gather even more detailed and timely information, an important consideration if the insurgency is to be stifled. The critical variable, these officials note, remains the large segment of the Iraqi population that has still not decided whether to actively support the new government.

In further violence yesterday, US and Iraqi forces left a mosque they were raiding in search of suspected insurgents in Mosul after coming under fire, witnesses said.

Unarmed worshippers prevented the intruding forces from entering the mosque itself. The US troops then sparked an uproar when they entered the women's section of the mosque, the preacher, Sheikh Rayan Tawfiq said.

Insurgents later attacked US vehicles parked outside the mosque with rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses said.

The US-Iraqi force then withdrew, amid jubilation among the worshippers inside the mosque.

Meanwhile, all three Macedonian contractors missing in Iraq since August have been killed, a Skopje official said yesterday, citing experts from the Balkan country who reviewed footage of the Macedonian hostages broadcast by an Arab television station.

They were part of a group of Macedonians employed with the Baghdad-based Soufan Engineering construction company.

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