Iraqis Joining Insurgency Less for Cause Than Cash

U.S. troops in a village near Mosul look for men accused of supplying weapons and materiel to fighters from the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. (Photo: Amit R. Paley/Post)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

MOSUL, Iraq -- Abu Nawall, a captured al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, said he didn't join the Sunni insurgent group here to kill Americans or to form a Muslim caliphate. He signed up for the cash.

"I was out of work and needed the money," said Abu Nawall, the nom de guerre of an unemployed metal worker who was paid as much as $1,300 a month as an insurgent. He spoke in a phone interview from an Iraqi military base where he is being detained. "How else could I support my family?"

U.S. military commanders say that insurgents across the country are increasingly motivated more by money than ideology and that a growing number of insurgent cells, struggling to pay recruits, are turning to gangster-style racketeering operations.

U.S. military officials have responded by launching a major campaign to disrupt al-Qaeda in Iraq's financial networks and spread propaganda that portrays its leaders as greedy thugs, an effort the officials describe as a key factor in their recent success beating down the insurgency.

"I tell a lot of my soldiers: A good way to prepare for operations in Iraq is to watch the sixth season of 'The Sopranos,' " said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, referring to the hit HBO series about the mob. "You're seeing a lot of Mafioso kind of activity."

In Mosul, a northern city of 2 million people that straddles the Tigris River, U.S. officials are also spending money to buoy the Iraqi economy -- including handing out microgrants sometimes as small as several hundred dollars -- to reduce the soaring unemployment that can turn young Iraqi men into insurgents-for-hire.

Col. Stephen Twitty, commander of U.S. forces in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province, said the dismantling of insurgent financing networks is the primary reason that violent attacks here have dropped from about 18 a day last year to about eight a day now.

"We're starting to hear a lot of chatter about the insurgents running out of money," said Twitty, of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. "They are not able to get money to pay people for operations."

In a 30-minute interview, Abu Nawall described his work managing the $6 million or so annual budget of the Mosul branch of the Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent umbrella group believed to have been formed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Iraqi military, which is still interrogating Abu Nawall, agreed to allow a Washington Post reporter to meet him in person after repeated requests for an interview. The interview was canceled at the last moment, but the military later allowed The Post to speak with Abu Nawall by phone as he sat in an Iraqi general's office.

Abu Nawall said he joined the group over the summer because his metalworking business had dried up. The 28-year-old said he was responsible for running the bureaucracy and arranging payments to the 500 or so fighters for the group in the city, who he said try to carry out as many as 30 attacks a day.

"Most of our money comes from payments we receive from places like Syria and from kidnappings," Abu Nawall said, adding that ransoms can reach $50,000 a person. But he denied U.S. claims that attacks in the city had dropped or that the group's funding had stopped. "We still have money," he said.

Much of Abu Nawall's account could not be independently verified, though he said he was speaking freely and without coercion by his detainers. His description of the insurgency's viability was in some cases significantly more upbeat than the one offered by Iraqi and U.S. officials.


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