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Militants Not Rallying for Iraq Holy War

July 28, 2003

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Saddam Hussein’s exhortations to the Muslim world to join him in a war may strike a powerful chord, but there is little sign of active recruitment, and it likely would take time for foreign militants to join the fray.

Any attempt to replicate the jihad fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan must overcome a lack of support from key Arab governments and skepticism about fighting for Saddam, said Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

It took months for foreign fighters to rally to the Afghan cause, and even then, they had the backing of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Reagan administration. Rashwan said he expected to see recruiting drives in the future, but believed they would take six to nine months to yield results.

Meanwhile, there’s little evidence of recruiting at campuses or on Web sites. Visits to mosques in several Arab capitals also yielded no sign that preachers are trying to mobilize the faithful for jihad.

In Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition has detained foreigners suspected of involvement in attacks on Americans, but officials say they are only remnants of the Arab volunteers who came to Iraq before the war.

Many of those non-Iraqi fighters returned home disillusioned at Baghdad’s quick fall and with stories of Iraqis showing little enthusiasm to fight to save Saddam’s regime.

``We were duped, and now I know that slogans are different from reality,″ said Khaled al-Hojeiri, a 22-year-old Lebanese quarry worker who said his cousin died as a volunteer fighter in Iraq.

Since the first phase of the war, though, Arabs have increasingly applauded news reports of daily attacks on U.S. forces. Anger is stirred by news reports of U.S. troops storming into the homes of Iraqi civilians in the hunt for Saddam loyalists or searching Iraqi women.

``Iraq is a Muslim country,″ said Mustafa Abdel al-Ghafar, a 25-year-old Egyptian shopkeeper. ``Jihad is a must because Americans are aggressors, and Iraq is suffering injustice.″

In a tape attributed to him broadcast on Arab satellite stations Wednesday, Saddam praised Iraqis and ``brother mujahedeen″ for their ``honorable jihad operations.″ But in fact, the ideologically secular Saddam was never a key rallying figure for a jihad.

``When I went to Iraq, I did not go because I was with Saddam, but because I was against the Americans,″ a 27-year-old Lebanese man explained, saying he fought in the war and would return.

``The Americans have always been against Arabs and Muslims everywhere and every capable person should fight them,″ he said, identifying hiomself only by his nom de guerre, Abul Toul.

Such talk succinctly sums up the ideology of groups like al-Qaida, for whom Iraq is an opportunity not to be missed, said Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on Islamic militancy at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.

Pushed out of Afghanistan by the U.S.-led war following the Sept. 11 attacks, militants need the morale-booster of ``a new theater of conflict, where they can psychologically and physically war-train their followers,″ Gunaratna said.

American targets are plentiful in a Middle Eastern country, and Iraq’s neighbors Iran and Syria are no friends of the United States, making it possible they would look the other way as militants slipped across long and porous borders.

But Arab governments may think twice about supporting al-Qaida, lest the United States punish them.

In the closely policed Arab world, it would be difficult to start a mass movement without at least tacit approval from above, and dissident Islamic movements are likely to be under closer scrutiny than ever, given al-Qaida’s stated abhorrence of any Arab government that does not faithfully uphold Muslim principles. Recruiting on the Web or at campuses would be unlikely to escape the notice of intelligence services.

``Our religion told us to go for holy war, but also we are obligated by the same religion to obey our leadership. So if they didn’t allow jihad, we won’t go, because we have to respect our leaders’ orders,″ said Mohammed Osman, a 22-year-old Egyptian university student.

In Saudi Arabia, the May 12 suicide bombings that killed Saudis as well as foreigners have prompted second thoughts about the cost of tolerating militancy.

But Mishari al-Zaidi, Islamic affairs correspondent for the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, said some Saudis may ``find the idea of fighting in Iraq appealing because of the current crackdown here, and because in Iraq they would be fighting what the believe is a foreign crusade.″


EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press correspondents Faiza Saleh Ambah in Saudi Arabia, Zeina Karam in Lebanon and Maggie Michael in Egypt contributed to this report.


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