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U.S. may now face al Qaeda in Iraq

Osama bin Laden's fighters may be among foreign intruders

By Nic Robertson

A U.S. soldier on alert at a border lookout in Iraq.
A U.S. soldier on alert at a border lookout in Iraq.

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AL QAIM, Iraq (CNN) -- From the heights of a border lookout post, U.S. soldiers use high-powered binoculars to scan Syrian fields for foreign fighters trying to sneak into Iraq.

Occasionally, they fire warning shots over the heads of anyone illegally approaching the barbed wire fence separating the nations.

Border outposts like this one are becoming crucial to the U.S. war on terrorism, U.S. military officials and terrorism analysts say, as suspicions mount that al Qaeda fighters are among those attempting to cross into Iraq.

The border is about 90 miles long, and the 200 soldiers at this checkpoint know -- despite the helicopter patrols and improved security -- they cannot fully secure it.

"We've reduced it significantly ... but I don't think we've stopped it completely," says Lt. Mike Adams, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

U.S. commanders in the border town of Al Qaim, barely a mile from Syria, say four foreign fighters who they believed had al Qaeda training were captured in recent weeks.

Immediately afterward, they say, attacks on U.S. forces declined and were less sophisticated -- leaving them no doubt that foreign fighters have been attacking them.

New battlefield

According to Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, the foreign fighters are terrorists intent on attacking Americans and their interests.

He calls Iraq another battlefield in the war on terrorism. For his soldiers, it means they expect they could be attacked every time they leave their bases.

Last month was the bloodiest in Iraq since the war ended.

More than 120 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the Jordanian Embassy in the capital and outside a mosque in Najaf sacred to Shiites -- an attack that also killed a prominent Shiite cleric.

So far it is not clear who was responsible.

Although al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had no proven ties to Saddam Hussein before the war, most analysts suspect al Qaeda fighters are among the foreigners crossing Iraq's borders now.

According to analysts, Iraq is an ideal place for al Qaeda operatives to target Americans because security is so fluid and the United States has about 130,000 troops here.

"All of these conditions create perfect operating circumstances for al Qaeda. And they seem to be taking advantage of it, seeing Iraq as kind of a shooting gallery," says Ken Pollack, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution.

So far at least seven groups, some of them apparently Iraqis, have claimed attacks on U.S. troops. Coalition officials suspect some of these fighters have infiltrated Iraq from Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In London, Saudi dissident Saad Al Fagih says as many as 3,000 militants could have left his homeland for Iraq, heading to Iraq to fight U.S. forces as part of a jihad -- or holy war.

Many may have gone only to seek martyrdom, Fagih says, to die in battle against U.S. troops in keeping with their religious beliefs. But others may have a more sophisticated anti-U.S. agenda.

Making alliances

Analysts say it is impossible to know how these many groups interact, not least because they have competing interests and ideologies.

They say, however, that pacts of mutual interest likely will be made, resulting in the sharing of terrorist ideas and expertise.

Qais Abu Assim believes foreign fighters are in Iraq and will continue to attack U.S. forces.
Qais Abu Assim believes foreign fighters are in Iraq and will continue to attack U.S. forces.

One of bin Laden's supporters, 28-year-old Iraqi-born Qais Abu Assim, is in a Kurdish jail in Iraq.

He claims to be a member of the Iraq-based Ansar Al Islam terror group and to have received al Qaeda training -- and says he knows how the terror groups think.

He says they want to attack Americans and the secular leaders who support them. He also believes foreign fighters are already in Iraq and will continue to attack U.S. forces, even if they cannot win.

Analysts say that relations between U.S. troops and Iraqis, already strained by the many attacks on the occupying force, will deteriorate further if Iraqis do not see political and economic progress.

Lack of progress, they say, will drive more Iraqis to join the fighters attacking the U.S. troops.

More troops soon will be deployed to guard Iraq's borders. Without control of these areas, analysts say, foreign fighters will find easy sanctuary and be able to evade capture.

Although U.S. troops have made border checkpoints almost impassable for foreign fighters, border fences are in disrepair just a few miles away, showing clear signs that people regularly cross over illegally.

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