As U.S. and Iraqi forces continue anti-insurgent operations in Iraq, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge of the foreign fighters who have slipped into the country to join the insurgency. Even though these foreign combatants are believed to be relatively few in number, they are a potent and deadly force.
Amid the sound of gunfire, U.S. troops move into the northwestern city of Haditha as part of a wider offensive in western Iraq near the Syrian border aimed at disrupting the flow of foreign fighters into the country. The deployment into Haditha is part of an operation called River Gate. Its goal is to prevent Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters from using cities in that part of the Euphrates river valley as a base for their attacks.
Increasing numbers of foreign extremists have been coming to Iraq to fight American and coalition forces. They join insurgent groups, especially the one led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who heads the al-Qaida terrorist network in Iraq. His group is believed responsible for some of the worst suicide bombings in recent months, in which scores of Iraqi civilians have been killed.
At a military briefing October 20 in Baghdad , General Rick Lynch said coalition forces have captured 311 foreign fighters since April. Most came from Egypt, Syria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. The other detainees came from more than 20 other countries, including Britain, France and Ireland. General Lynch says it appears the Zarqawi network is increasingly relying on foreigners.
"We've talked about how Zarqawi since January has lost 100 of his leaders, tier one, tier two, tier three leaders," he said. "What we find is that he's replacing these leaders with foreign fighters, primarily because they are most inclined to conduct these ruthless acts of violence against the Iraqi people."
A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says foreigners make up between four to 10 percent of Iraq's estimated 30,000 insurgents. They come from predominantly Muslim countries, and are recruited in a variety of ways. Some are recruited at mosques, others at youth clubs or athletic clubs.
Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, who is one of the report's authors, says many of the new recruits join the Zarqawi group, though not all.
"Sometimes they seem to be recruited into cells rather than through any central organization," he said. "So they'll go to Syria, for example, and then go to the actual cell without having been passed through the organization itself. Some of the people doing the recruiting seem to have this kind of direct connection rather than a connection through the organization. But what is very clear is that most of the foreign volunteers are always Sunni Islamic extremists and the number is rising it is not declining."
The CSIS study is based on background intelligence briefings, and from information provided by foreign insurgents who have been captured or from documents found on their bodies after they have been killed. From this information, Mr. Cordesman has concluded that most of these fighters share the philosophy and goals of al-Qaida: they violently reject non-Muslims and want to establish radical Islamist states in the Middle East. To accomplish this, these foreign extremists are more than willing to die for the cause.
"Some are recruited with the whole idea of martyrdom. So they come to Iraq prepared to die and that makes it very easy for the organization using them to have them perform very high risk missions, not always suicide missions, but missions in which they are very unlikely to survive," he said.
Syria is believed to be a primary staging ground for these foreign fighters. They arrive in the country by plane and then sometimes receive training in clandestine camps before slipping across the border into Iraq. At a Senate hearing last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington is pressing Damascus to stop this.
"The course we are currently on is, of course, to use our military power to stem the tide of people that are coming into that area, to clear some of those towns in which insurgents have been living, up in Al-Qaim and that region, and to put pressure on the Syrians diplomatically to take steps that would make it easier to stem the flow of insurgents, that's the course that we're on," she said.
But defeating the foreign fighters will not be easy and - according to CSIS - will require more than just a military solution.
"To really win you have to win politically," said Anthony Cordesman. "To really win you have to convince Iraqis, and particularly Iraqi Sunnis, the public, not to allow these people to exist, to report them whenever they are there. You have to have a police force, you have to have governance in these areas so that people feel secure and are willing to report the fact that these people are operating."
Until then, he says suicide bombings and other acts of violence are likely to continue in Iraq. What Mr. Cordesman and other experts fear is that those foreign fighters who survive the Iraq conflict may return to their home countries to put their terrorist skills to use.