Estimates by U.S. See More Rebels With More Funds

By ERIC SCHMITT and THOM SHANKER

New York Times

October 22, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 21 - Senior American officials are beginning to assemble a new portrait of the insurgency that has continued to inflict casualties on American and Iraqi forces, showing that it has significantly more fighters and far greater financial resources than had been estimated.

When foreign fighters and the network of a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are counted with home-grown insurgents, the hard-core resistance numbers between 8,000 and 12,000 people, a tally that swells to more than 20,000 when active sympathizers or covert accomplices are included, according to the American officials.

These estimates contrast sharply with earlier intelligence reports, in which the number of insurgents has varied from as few as 2,000 to a maximum of 7,000. The revised estimate is influencing the military campaign in Iraq, but has not prompted a wholesale review of the strategy, officials said.

In recent interviews, military and other government officials in Iraq and Washington said the core of the Iraqi insurgency now consisted of as many as 50 militant cells that draw on "unlimited money'' from an underground financial network run by former Baath Party leaders and Saddam Hussein's relatives..

Their financing is supplemented in great part by wealthy Saudi donors and Islamic charities that funnel large sums of cash through Syria, according to these officials, who have access to detailed intelligence reports.

Only half the estimated $1 billion the Hussein government put in Syrian banks before the war has been recovered, Pentagon officials said. There is no tally of money flowing through Syria to Iraq from wealthy Saudis or Islamic charities, but a Pentagon official said the figure is "significant."

Unclassified assessments by some private analysts have recently sounded some of the same warnings. This week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in releasing its annual global military survey, said perhaps 1,000 Islamic jihadists have entered Iraq to join the fight, and it estimated that it would take five years for the American military to prepare Iraqi forces to take over fully from the forces of the United States and its allies.

American military and Pentagon officials continue to hold that as Iraqi security forces increase in numbers and effectiveness, they will be able to gather even more detailed and timely information, an important consideration if the insurgency is to be stifled. Perhaps the most important variable, these officials note, is that a large segment of the Iraqi population still has not decided whether to give active support to the new government.

Despite concerns about foreign fighters, American officials said the most significant challenge to the stabilization effort came from domestic Iraqi insurgents, and not from foreign terrorists, despite the violence of attacks organized or carried out by foreigners.

These officials said that in many places, secular Sunni Muslim insurgent leaders - mostly Hussein-era supporters - were being challenged and even surpassed in authority by militant Sunni activists from inside Iraq. This development presents fresh concerns to Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, as he tries to negotiate a political solution to stalemates in places like Falluja, where Pentagon and military officials say the insurgency increasingly is taking on a radical Islamic face.

Throughout the occupation of Iraq, American officials have struggled to construct an accurate portrait of the insurgency they have been fighting. In discussing this most recent intelligence, the officials appeared to present a fuller picture of the security problems than has been provided in previous interviews or other public statements.

But just as some earlier intelligence estimates before the war have proved incorrect, specialists acknowledge that the current assessments, too, are inevitably imperfect.

"What makes it more difficult is that you're dealing with an insurgency without a single face," said a senior Army intelligence officer with nearly a year's experience in Iraq. "It's not just one group of insurgents rallying under one cause. It's multiple groups with different causes loosely tied together by the threads of anti-U.S. sentiment, some sort of Iraqi nationalism, Muslim-Arab unity or greed."

Another officer, Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III of the Army, the senior intelligence officer in Iraq, said in an interview in Baghdad, "It's detective work, and it's very difficult work." General DeFreitas called it "a challenge for the U.S. military to use tools, well designed for maneuver warfare, against an insurgency,'' adding, "Insurgents don't show up in satellite imagery very well."

According to data assembled by the military, about 80 percent of the violent attacks are criminal in nature - kidnappings for ransom or hijackings of convoys - with no political motivation. Of the other 20 percent, which include the most violent attacks on Iraqi security forces, the American military and international organizations, about four-fifths are attributed to domestic insurgents rather than to foreign terrorists.

The Ramadan holy season that began this month has prompted a 25 percent increase in daily attacks, according to Pentagon officials, but they see no indication yet of a major insurgent offensive. They did express concerns that such an offensive could come in November or December, as voter registration gets under way in earnest, or could be timed to the elections in January.

"What we don't see yet is a unifying leader of the insurgency," General DeFreitas said.

One Pentagon official said that the insurgency was now organized regionally, and that evidence pointed to some planning across regional boundaries. But there is no national insurgent network, the official said.

Even the Zarqawi organization, which can plan and carry out attacks outside its base in Falluja and the broader Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad, has no sustained operations or base outside that area, this Pentagon official said.

Even as American attacks are killing dozens of fighters and some leadership figures every week, officials said, insurgents in many parts of Iraq have been able to promote lieutenants into higher leadership roles and are able to attract a steady stream of recruits. But some of the new leaders are not as qualified as their predecessors, military officers said, in particular those filling spots in the Zarqawi network in Falluja.

Senior military and Pentagon officials said the new information was being developed because of the growing role of the Iraqi police and other security forces, who are more adept than American forces at spotting insurgents or people who might come forward with tips. Iraqis are setting up centralized operations centers to share information and coordinate anti-insurgent activities.

But a Pentagon official noted evidence that even the new Iraqi security forces had been penetrated by insurgents, or at least by people willing to share information with them.

One example of that penetration is the Tuesday attack on an Iraqi National Guard base north of Baghdad, which killed 4 and wounded 80. The attack came at the exact time guardsmen were mustering for a ceremony, which is seen by experts as an indication that those firing off the mortars held inside information.

Military officials say they are getting a clearer view of the major financial backers of the insurgencies, and of the main operatives and their cell networks inside Iraq. The financial leadership is said to number about 20 people, mostly operating outside Iraq.

Among the most influential militant financiers are members of the Majid family, particularly three cousins of Mr. Hussein, who are actively involved in the smuggling of weapons, fighters and money into Iraq, and who live in Syria. Another key organizer is Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, a former Baath Party leader and aide to Mr. Hussein, officials say.

These former Baathists are helping to arm and equip cell leaders in the Sunni heartland, who in turn run local teams. Many turn to unemployed and disaffected Iraqi men, eager to earn money. The going rate in parts of Baghdad for planting roadside bombs is $100 to $300 for each explosive, a senior military officer said.

Military and Pentagon officials say there is no shortage of funds for the insurgency, though the counterinsurgency campaign has slowed the delivery of money to some areas. That prompted a Pentagon official to say guerrilla activities diminish when the money runs low between deliveries.

Pentagon officials said there appeared to be no official Saudi government support for the financial network, but expressed dissatisfaction with the level of Saudi efforts to block the money transfers. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said his country had strict banking regulations, and would examine any evidence of Saudi citizens' supporting the Iraqi insurgency.

Earlier this week, in Mahmudiya, American marines said they had discovered the leader of the financing network for Mr. Zarqawi among the detainees at a military camp there. The marines said the man, Mahmud Abdel Aziz al-Harami al-Janabi, was captured along with other suspected militants in a raid on Sunday. And Pentagon officials say that some members of the Zarqawi network have fled Falluja, and that those still inside are setting up military-style defenses in anticipation of a ground attack.

And Mr. Zarqawi is being challenged by local tribal and religious leaders, who likewise are seizing the initiative from former government leaders in the area.

Senior military officials said the recent American-led offensives in Najaf, Tal Afar and Samarra, followed by economic and reconstruction aid, had created a more stable security environment that is leading to more information on the location of insurgents.

Marine intelligence officers responsible for operations in western Iraq said there were at least five major insurgent leaders of the groups operating in Falluja, whose aim is to undermine the fledgling Iraqi government, drive out the American troops and make money through smuggling and extortion rackets.

Marine officers said that in addition to Mr. Zarqawi, a Sunni extremist named Omar Hadid and a sheik named Janabi, a radical Sunni cleric, were both influential anti-American militants.

They said Mr. Hadid ran a gangland-style operation, making money through car smuggling and hostage-for-ransom operations, as well as from tithes collected by sympathetic mosques.

Former members of the Baath Party and of Iraqi security services and criminal gangs also operate in Falluja.

"It's a loose confederation of interests as well as marriages of convenience,'' Col. Ron Makuta, the chief intelligence officer for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, said in an interview on Thursday at its headquarters at Camp Falluja, outside the city itself.

Eric Schmitt reported from Baghdad and Falluja for this article, and Thom Shanker from Washington.