The top U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq said Abu Musab Zarqawi and his foreign and Iraqi associates have essentially commandeered the insurgency, becoming the dominant opposition force and the greatest immediate threat to U.S. objectives in the country.
"I think what you really have here is an insurgency that's been hijacked by a terrorist campaign," Army Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner said in an interview. "In part, by Zarqawi becoming the face of this thing, he has certainly gotten the funding, the media and, frankly, has allowed other folks to work along in his draft."
The remarks underscored a shift in view among senior members of the U.S. military command here since the spring, as violence, especially against civilians, has spiked and as Zarqawi, a radical Sunni Muslim from Jordan, has aggressively promoted himself and his anti-U.S., anti-Shiite campaign. U.S. military leaders say they now see Zarqawi's group of foreign fighters and Iraqi supporters, known as al Qaeda in Iraq, as having supplanted Iraqis loyal to ousted president Saddam Hussein as the insurgency's driving element.
[The U.S. military announced Tuesday that a man it identified as Zarqawi's second-in-command and the leader of al Qaeda's operations in Baghdad, Abdallah Najim Abdallah Muhammad Juwari, known as Abu Azzam, had been shot dead in the Iraqi capital during a U.S. raid Sunday. A statement from Zarqawi's group, however, said Abu Azzam's death "was not confirmed" and denied that he is the group's number two figure.]
Even with Zarqawi's growing significance, Zahner and other officers stressed that Iraq's insurgency remains a complex mix of elements. It includes a variety of factions, often with differing political, religious or tribal aims and sometimes with simply criminal intentions.
"While Zarqawi is the overarching bad guy -- the one everyone loves to hate -- there are a lot of other bad guys operating as well," said Brig. Gen. Karl R. Horst, deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which has responsibility for the Baghdad area.
But the Hussein loyalists -- including former Baath Party members, onetime military and intelligence officers and other Sunni Arab associates of the ousted Iraqi leader -- have clearly receded in the U.S. command's view. Labeled "Saddamists" in U.S. military reports, they are now considered less an immediate military danger than a longer-term political concern, given their desire to return to power and their potential to infiltrate and subvert efforts to establish democracy. Once the primary names on the list of most-wanted insurgents in Iraq, they now rank behind those identified with al Qaeda in Iraq.
"You'll see some of the old regime elements on there, mainly just to maintain pressure and, frankly, accountability," Zahner said. "But when you look at those individuals central to the inflicting of huge amounts of violence, it really is not those folks. The Saddamists, the former regime guys, they're riding this."
By contrast, Zarqawi's network, although numerically still a small fraction of the insurgency, is said to be behind a disproportionately large share of the violence. Its suicide bombings in particular have produced the highest casualties and, senior U.S. officers say, done the most to heighten insecurity and sectarian tensions and undermine public support in the United States for the U.S. military effort here.
The heightened prominence of Zarqawi's group has affected the focus of U.S. military operations. Since spring, U.S. commanders have moved beyond targeting the group's leaders and urban cells to try to shut off the flow of foreign Islamic extremists infiltrating from Syria. These foreigners, who come from a number of countries, are said to be employed by Zarqawi as the primary suicide attackers in Iraq.
There has been a steady buildup of U.S. and Iraqi forces along the insurgents' two main transit corridors -- one in northwestern Iraq between the border and Mosul, the other in the far western reaches of the Euphrates River valley. U.S. figures show some success in curbing infiltration. Zahner said the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq, which had started to approach 200 a month in June, appeared to drop to 100 a month or fewer by the end of August. More than 315 foreign fighters have been killed since March and nearly 330 detained. Suicide attacks fell about 50 percent from May to August.
In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, the 1st Brigade of the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division reported capturing or killing a succession of top al Qaeda figures since the spring. Even with these apparent losses, however, Zarqawi and his associates still appear able to escalate attacks when they want, as they demonstrated in Baghdad on Sept. 14 with at least a dozen bombings that killed or wounded hundreds. The average level of daily attacks across Iraq, including small-arms fire, drive-by shootings, mortar and rocket assaults and roadside bombings, has continued to creep up since spring and stands now at about 90.
U.S. officers here say military operations have disrupted the planning and movement of Zarqawi's group and weakened its leadership in some areas of the country. But Zarqawi and his supporters have shown an ability to shift to regions where U.S. and Iraqi troops have minimal presence.
Another problematic aspect of Zarqawi's operation is its absence of an associated political organization. Hoping to incite sectarian conflict and derail the political process, Zarqawi has declared war on Iraqi Shiites and is urging Sunnis not to participate in next month's vote on a draft constitution or December's parliamentary elections.
"I think right now he's taking an extremely high-risk but, in his view, potentially high-payoff strategy, which is to try to force a civil war with the Shia and portray himself as the defender of the Sunni populace," Zahner said.
U.S. commanders see an opportunity to exploit what they regard as a split between Zarqawi's approach and the main current of Sunni opinion, which appears to favor participation in the voting. In a meeting with leading representatives in Fallujah last week, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, described Zarqawi's group and its supporters as "the greatest threat to Iraq" and urged all Iraqis "to band together against that group so the country can go forward."
A main worry among senior U.S. officers here is that Zarqawi's attacks will trigger a deadly cycle of retribution. This increases the pressure on U.S. forces to crush Zarqawi's group, and not just hope that it weakens and eventually dissolves as Iraq's political process matures.
"If you don't take off the terrorist element," Zahner said, "the political process can't mature."