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US Commander Vows to Escalate War on Iraq Insurgents - 2003-11-11

The American commander of ground forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, says the U.S. military is trying to determine the presence of the al-Qaida terrorist network in Iraq.

Lieutenant General Sanchez told reporters the U.S. military is focused on finding out if any of the men in U.S. custody are members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

But the general says they have little evidence to link them to al-Qaida.

"The total number of detainees that we have in our detention facilities is over 5,000," he said. "In terms of identifying specifically the links solidly to al-Qaida, we continue to work on that. At one point, we had up to 20 suspected al-Qaida members. But as we have continued to refine [our information] and interrogate [the suspects], we have not been able to establish definitively that they were al-Qaida members."

General Sanchez reiterated coalition concerns about foreign Islamic militant fighters slipping across the borders from neighboring Syria and Iran to wage a holy war against coalition forces. He says Iraqi immigration officials are now monitoring the borders more effectively, looking for people trying to enter Iraq with forged documents.

The top U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said repeatedly that hundreds of fighters are inside Iraq. But it is still unclear what role the fighters may be playing in the insurgency, which has killed nearly 40 American soldiers in recent weeks.

Since November 1, insurgents have downed two military helicopters, ambushed numerous convoys, and fired mortar rounds toward coalition headquarters in Baghdad four times.

General Sanchez acknowledges that guerrilla attacks against coalition forces are growing bolder and more sophisticated. But he says from a military point of view, the insurgents cannot win.

"We continue to face former regime loyalists, criminals and foreign terrorists who are trying to isolate the coalition from the Iraqi people and trying to break the will of the coalition and the international community," said General Sanchez. "They will fail."

Meanwhile, violence claimed the lives of at least four Iraqis in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

A roadside bomb tore apart a minibus in the city center near a police checkpoint in the mainly Shiite Muslim city. British soldiers, who are in charge of the security in the area, say they do not know the motive for the bombing.

Southern Iraq has seen fewer attacks on coalition troops than other areas. But British officials say attacks targeting their troops have been getting more frequent in Basra in recent weeks.