RAMADI, Iraq — Last month, a Jordanian gunman trapped in a terrorist safe house fought a U.S. Army platoon to the death here in the dusty badlands of western Iraq.
After the gunman fell, U.S. troops discovered a hoard of explosives, guns, passports and a suicide bomber vest. And they hit pay dirt: In the debris were two photos of a Jordanian fugitive named Abu Musab Zarqawi. The slain man turned out to be a Zarqawi bomb maker being harbored by a former colonel in Iraqi intelligence.
The incident produced a rare tangible trace of a 37-year-old accused terrorist who has attained notoriety in recent days. Iraqi and U.S. leaders call Zarqawi the mastermind of an eight-month wave of attacks in the country, most recently the multiple bombings at Shiite Muslim shrines that killed as many as 271 people last week.
A coalition poster shows the different images of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. The United States says it has 'clear intelligence' tying Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi to the bombings in Karbala and Baghdad (AFP/US Army/HO)
Almost every day, U.S. officials here display a confiscated letter, allegedly written by Zarqawi, that claims responsibility for 25 suicide attacks and lays out a blueprint for plunging Iraq into sectarian chaos. There is a $10-million price on his head.
But the U.S. has provided little evidence implicating Zarqawi. In one case coalition officials say he plotted, the car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people last year, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said little progress had been made in identifying the culprits.
Although Zarqawi has been identified as a central figure in a multiethnic network whose tentacles reach across Europe and the Middle East, his anointment as an all-powerful kingpin troubles some investigators and experts, who say it distorts the nature of the insurgency in Iraq.
An Iraqi anti-terrorist police commander dismissed the claim in the purported Zarqawi letter that he has carried out 25 "martyrdom operations," which would encompass most major attacks here since the fall.
"They are always exaggerating about Al Qaeda," said Col. Dhia Hussein of the Baghdad anti-terrorism unit. "No witnesses have come and talked to me about Zarqawi. The only thing is that he is mentioned in the newspapers. And a $10-million reward. Who is this man?
Maybe he exists — such characters exist. But to complete these operations and we don't know, it's impossible."
Die-hard loyalists of the former Iraqi regime represent a bigger threat than Zarqawi, Hussein said. The suicide bombings in Baghdad are the work of different groups, he said, including the loyalists, recently arrived freelance Islamic extremists and foreign fighters who came to Iraq before the war.
The focus on Zarqawi is part of a political strategy to portray the terrorism threat as essentially foreign and rooted in the Al Qaeda network, thereby downplaying the significance of Iraqi insurgents, critics say. But outsiders could not operate in Iraq's "hostile tribal environment" without local allies, said Mustafa Alani, an Iraq-born expert on terrorism.
"The Americans want to say that the only people fighting them are supporters" of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said Alani, who is based at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank affiliated with the British Defense Ministry. "Everybody blames Zarqawi, but I think it's a series of assumptions. It's of great publicity value to say he is trying to stir a civil war. With all the attacks they blame him for, he's either a superman or a myth."
Zarqawi has been in the spotlight before. His real name is Ahmed Fadhil Nazzar Khalailah, and U.S. officials identify him as a Palestinian Jordanian. His prewar presence in Iraq served as the basis for U.S. accusations tying Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein — allegations that remain unproven. The current depiction of Zarqawi as supreme chief of a terrorist army assaulting Iraq may reflect a U.S. perspective that differs from European and Arab views.
U.S. officials tend to personify the threat in a notorious individual, European investigators say, while Europeans and Arabs regard Islamic networks as loose and anarchic. American officials are also quick to group Zarqawi and other terrorists under the label of Al Qaeda, though the network is an increasingly dispersed constellation of groups, experts say.
"There's this image of a super-villain who's behind everything," said Claude Moniquet, a terrorism expert at a Brussels think tank, who believes that the claim of 25 attacks attributed to Zarqawi is exaggerated. "These people don't work like that. What you always have to remember about the Islamic movements is that they are little, very independent cells, not all connected. There's no hierarchy."
But if Zarqawi has indeed led the campaign of mass-casualty suicide bombings in Iraq, he has rapidly grown into one of the most lethal terrorists in activity.
"If Osama bin Laden were to disappear tomorrow, Zarqawi would become one of the biggest chiefs of the global jihad," Moniquet said.
Zarqawi's stature has risen as the murky array of global Islamic movements has reconfigured. Although he once ran an Al Qaeda training camp for Jordanians in Afghanistan, he kept a distance from the network's leaders, according to court testimony in Germany. His independence has increased as members of Bin Laden's inner circle have been killed or driven underground, investigators say.
In a recording that appeared on Islamic Internet sites in January, a voice believed to be Zarqawi's delivered a call to battle. His first known propaganda statement shows that he "aspires to be a boss and is growing militarily," an Italian law enforcement official said.
"Oh Allah, America came with its horses and knights to challenge Allah and his messenger," the voice says on the tape. "Oh Allah, rend the kingdom of Bush as you rent the kingdom of Caesar."
After his release from a Jordanian prison in 1999, Zarqawi allegedly oversaw half a dozen plots against European and Israeli targets, but all were foiled. He is accused of ordering the shooting death of a USAID official in Amman, Jordan, in October 2002, a relatively unsophisticated operation.
Last year, police found indirect ties between Zarqawi and major suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, in May and Istanbul, Turkey, in November, Spanish and British officials say.
But the investigation does not indicate that Zarqawi ordered car-bomb attacks on a British Consulate and a bank in Istanbul, despite press reports, a British counter-terrorism official said. Instead, it appears that the bombers in Turkey may have been trained by Zarqawi's network, the official said.
"There's a general sense that the network must have contributed to the development of skills at some point, rather than having specific operational involvement," the British official said.
There are similar questions about Zarqawi's direct involvement in the barrage of sophisticated attacks against targets in Iraq. Some U.S. commanders agree that the extent of his role is a gray area.
"Not all of the groups are exactly the same," a senior military official said. "And I think that's consistent with the way Al Qaeda has organized itself over the last few years. My own view is that Zarqawi has his own thoughts and his own direction he wants to take his organization. Not all other organizations are necessarily going to be in agreement with him. Nor are they going to operate necessarily under his command and control."
Despite frequent talk of "foreign fighters," U.S. commanders say their foes are mostly Iraqi. Ragtag thugs, often fueling themselves with drugs and alcohol, collect $20 to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at U.S. convoys, the commanders say. The tougher factions are militants of the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and former officers of Saddam Hussein's security forces.
"It's clearly wrong to pin all the attacks on Zarqawi or suggest that this is exclusively a foreign-fueled, foreign-initiated insurgency, because that's not the case," said Maj. John Nagl of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, which patrols the heart of insurgent turf.
Nonetheless, the recent discovery of the suspected Zarqawi network safe house suggests an alliance between foreign Islamic fighters and Hussein's traditionally secular die-hards.
The Feb. 19 gunfight resulted from a reconnaissance patrol by a platoon of the 1st Infantry Division in the semi-rural area near Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim enclave that is the first large city on the desert road from the Syrian border. Ramadi's smuggling rackets and anti-American fervor make it a way station for Arab jihadis.
The 19 soldiers didn't realize that they had a wanted terrorist in their sights when they rolled into a remote hamlet around 1 p.m. They just wanted to question four suspicious-looking men standing outside a gray, two-story house typical of the affluence in Hussein's tribal strongholds, commanders say.
But when the bomb maker known as Abu Mohammed Hamza saw the four Humvees, he bolted, drew a pistol and wounded a soldier who blocked his escape. Hamza engaged the soldiers in a desperate firefight.
Hamza was believed to have been about 30, officials said. His real name has not been released. Intelligence officers think that Hamza was "one of a handful of trusted lieutenants" of Zarqawi and are trying to connect him to specific attacks, the senior military official said.
One of Hamza's captured Iraqi confederates was a colonel in Hussein's intelligence service who lived next door to the hide-out. During the gunfight, the colonel and two other men ran into his house, where women and children had taken refuge.
The men disguised themselves in dresses and shawls, but soldiers nabbed them as they tried to sneak out among the women, military officials said.
The passport-type photos of Zarqawi found by the soldiers may have been intended for identity documents. In the images, Zarqawi has a pasty complexion, a receding hairline and a weary look. He wears eyeglasses in one picture.
U.S. commanders say they have redoubled the hunt for him after Tuesday's bombing massacres of Shiite pilgrims.
"There is no doubt that Zarqawi and his network, in conjunction with former regime elements, perpetrated these attacks," Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said at a Pentagon briefing last week. "We certainly know that the Zarqawi network is attempting to foment civil war."
Zarqawi arrived in Iraq after fleeing in late 2001 from Afghanistan, where he suffered wounds that reportedly required the amputation of a leg in Baghdad. He set up shop at terrorist training camps with Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish extremist group, near the Iranian border before the war.
After U.S. bombs wiped out the camps and killed one of his deputies, Zarqawi took refuge in Iran. He has operated there with the apparent protection of Iranian security forces, investigators say. Last year, a suspect in a Spanish investigation said in an intercepted conversation that he was "in Iran with Abu Musab Zarqawi," according to a Spanish investigator.
U.S. commanders say they think Zarqawi is now in Iraq. His profile surged last month when U.S. officials here made public the letter seized from an alleged Al Qaeda courier. The captured messenger admitted that Zarqawi wrote the letter, said Iyad Allawi, a member of Iraq's Governing Council.
The unsigned document is addressed to "the men on the mountaintops," thought to be Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Zawahiri. It describes victories and setbacks of the fight in Iraq and outlines a plan to ignite "sectarian war" by turning Shiites against Sunnis.
The letter is "a madman's plan," said Lt. Col. Ken Devan, intelligence officer for the Army's 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. "It's either a plea for help because he's having troubles, or he's trying to look for reinforcements."
Some U.S. and Iraqi officials say there is no doubt Zarqawi wrote the letter. Devan was more cautious.
"You have to look at it kind of critically," Devan said. "You can look at things on the surface and say: 'Well, OK, that's got to be him, that's got to be his work.' But again, you have to look more critically at it. So to say right now, do I think it was penned by Zarqawi, it's inconclusive at this point. A guy that has such good [operational security], you wonder why would he do that."
Alani, the London-based expert, thinks that parts of the letter are not consistent with Zarqawi's thinking. He found it unlikely that Zarqawi, who has had a good relationship with Shiite Iran, would denounce Shiites as "lurking snake[s]" and "malicious scorpion[s]" in writing.
Until Zarqawi is caught or killed, questions will linger. There is the political context: The previous U.S. allegations about Zarqawi's supposed prewar links to the Iraqi regime fizzled. Ironically, developments such as the gunfight at the safe house suggest that postwar turmoil may have spawned such an improbable alliance.
In congressional testimony last week, Abizaid said: "We also have intelligence that shows there is some linkage between Zarqawi and the former regime elements, specifically the Iraqi intelligence service, and we are concerned to see a terrorist group come into close coordination with former Iraqi intelligence service people."
Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell and John Hendren contributed to this report.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times