Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe
November 1, 2004, Monday THIRD EDITION

LENGTH: 1931 words
BYLINE: By Thanassis Cambanis, GLOBE STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan American officials have grossly inflated the role of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the violence in Iraq in their eagerness to blame foreign terrorists for the insurgency, according to Jordanian analysts and Western diplomats.

Convicts who spent time in a Jordanian prison remember Zarqawi as a "prison prince" a hands-on block leader who commanded a few dozen followers with a nod or a glance, but who left arguments about religious ideology to more educated jihadists. They recall him as brutal and inarticulate, dependent on others for direction.

Analysts in Jordan, Zarqawi's native country and home until at least 1999, said Zarqawi joined the armed Islamist struggle in Af ghanistan more than a decade ago. His group, among the most violent in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for a trail of brutal acts, culminating in videotaped beheadings by Zarqawi's own hand of two American contractors in September. He has also claimed responsibility for two separate massacres of Iraqi national guardsmen in late October, including the execution of 49 soldiers east of Baghdad and 11 more south of the capital.

But these analysts, as well as some Western diplomats, say Zarqawi's group is just one of many jihadist factions that attract fighters from Iraq and across the Arab world and that Zarqawi's capability and ties to Osama bin Laden have been exaggerated.

They say American counter-terrorism officials are ignoring a wide array of fundamentalist groups at work in Iraq and surrounding countries in their effort to portray all terrorist activity in Iraq as the handiwork of a single mastermind.

"The bottom line is that America needs to create a serious public enemy who is not Iraqi so they can claim Iraqis aren't responsible for the resistance," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst who regularly meets with Iraqi government leaders as well as opposition militants.

A Western diplomat familiar with evidence against Zarqawi said the US government often paints terrorist activity in Iraq and Jordan with a broad brush, attributing the activities of a disparate array of terror groups and individual operatives to the "Zarqawi network."

"There are probably organizations that are not affiliated with Zarqawi," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's some sense that maybe the United States has exaggerated his importance."

US officials repeatedly referred to Zarqawi as an Al Qaeda associate starting last December, although this summer they backed away from that claim, with several American officials in Iraq and Washington describing Zarqawi as an independent operator. However, Zarqawi issued a taped declaration of loyalty to Osama bin Laden last week. That suggested formal ties between his fighters and Al Qaeda are still developing.

These assessments come at a time when US and Iraqi officials are grappling to determine the role of foreign fundamentalists in the violence in Iraq. Iraqi fighters themselves confirm that foreign jihadists operate freely in their midst, often supplying funds and weapons expertise that Iraqis have trouble procuring on their own.

But it is difficult to separate fact from rhetoric. US authorities have arrested a few hundred foreign fighters in Iraq, including men from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Syria. The overwhelming majority of fighters arrested in Iraq, however, including many thwarted suicide bombers, are Iraqis.

The comparatively small proportion of foreign fighters arrested in Iraq, and the accounts of Iraqis in Fallujah who contend that most of the fighters in that city are Iraqi, are at odds with the American military's official portrayal of Zarqawi as the backbone of the militia that has controlled Fallujah for a year and a half.

Witnesses in Fallujah say that about half the roughly 400 foreign Arabs in the city answer to Zarqawi.

Last week, one fighter, a 37-year-old Jordanian named Hamad Saleh from the town of Al Mafraq, told an Iraqi reporter in Fallujah that he had abandoned his work as a truck driver to join the Iraqi resistance four months ago. But he said he loathed Zarqawi and his organization, Tawhid and Jihad. Their fundamentalism and "un-Islamic" tactics, including suicide bombings and beheading hostages, Saleh said, had tainted the reputation of fighters who had come to Iraq to join conventional battle against US forces.

"You should distinguish between Tawhid and Jihad, which ruined the reputation of the resistance, and those of us Arab fighters who answered Iraq's call for help," Saleh said. "We have nothing to do with Al Qaeda or Zarqawi."

Speaking in a downtown mosque after praying, Saleh said he and hundreds of other young men fought under the command of Iraqi mujahideen commanders, and looked forward to America's expected assault on Fallujah.

"Expect a fierce battle which history will record, speaking of young men who broke and defeated the greatest army in the world," Saleh said.

The Western diplomats and Arab observers who described American claims about the Zarqawi network as overstated still underscored that he is a dangerous and lethal man. Two years ago, in October 2002, an American diplomat, Laurence Foley, was murdered in Amman. Zarqawi has been indicted as the mastermind of that crime.

Jordanian authorities have charged him and his associates in connection with an April plot to attack foreign and government installations in Jordan, including the US Embassy.

In Iraq, Zarqawi and his group have mounted a publicity campaign as feverish as their attacks are violent, issuing videotaped statements, posting announcements to the Internet, and claiming responsibility for high-profile killings.

Last week, in a statement posted to the Internet, the group announced it was changing its name to "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," while Zarqawi appeared to offer his services and his loyalty, formally, to bin Laden.

Inside Fallujah, however, the roughly 200 foreign Arab operatives answering directly to Zarqawi continue to refer to themselves as members of Tawhid and Jihad, according to local fighters who attended a meeting Thursday of the mujahideen shura council, suggesting that the name change to Al Qaeda was intended as a media move.

It is unclear whether Zarqawi's group is responsible for all the attacks to which it is linked, including the August 2003 suicide bombings at the United Nations, the Jordanian Embassy, and the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

The American military contends it has uprooted the group's leadership structure, but its campaign does not seem to have stemmed the nationwide wave of suicide bombings and targeted killings of Iraqi police and soldiers.

Since Sept. 2, the US military in Baghdad has made at least 30 announcements about operations against the Zarqawi network. During that period, covering less than two months, the US military contends to have killed at least 100 members of the Zarqawi network in Fallujah while bombing 25 safe houses, four illegal checkpoints, a training camp, and five weapons depots. And the US military announced the capture of 11 militants linked to Zarqawi. There is a $25 million reward for his capture the same amount offered for Saddam Hussein last year.

Jordanians who knew Zarqawi in prison say they doubt Zarqawi and his group alone could be behind all the terror attacks.

Two Islamists who spent time in prison with Zarqawi in the 1990s, Yusuf Rababa, 35, and Khalid abu Doma, 36, said that Zarqawi's group was but one of many cells that attracted young men looking for the kind of jihad many Arabs experienced in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Since the US invasion, the men said, dozens of Jordanians have left for Iraq to fight American forces with Islamic extremist groups, most of them not Zarqawi's.

"What is happening in Iraq is like what is happening in Jenin [in the West Bank]," said abu Doma, who contended he renounced terrorism after serving six years in prison for building car bombs. "We Arabs are of one language and one religion. The nationalist feeling moves us to fight."

The two men watched the beheading videos claimed by Zarqawi's group in Iraq, Tawhid and Jihad, and listened to the recorded statements attributed to him. They said they recognized him severing the head of American hostage Nicholas Berg, but in other cases are not certain it is Zarqawi.

They are convinced that the flowery language of communiques attributed to Zarqawi, including the December letter outlining Tawhid and Jihad's plans to sow instability in Iraq and the recent oath of loyalty to bin Laden sound far too sophisticated to have been authored by Zarqawi, who is said to be an inarticulate high school dropout.

"He was clever but uneducated," said Abdullah abu Ramman, a Jordanian journalist who spent four months in prison with Zarqawi in 1996. Zarqawi had memorized the Koran in prison, he said, but always relied on more senior religious figures to provide guidance to his followers.

A learned cleric, Abdullah al-Maqdesi, provided the gravitas to Zarqawi's jihadist program in the 1990s. Maqdesi was arrested two years ago, so Zarqawi brought another Jordanian with him to Iraq to serve as the spiritual guide for his terror cell, writing the fatwas that authorized tactics like suicide bombings and beheadings.

That man, Abu Anas Shami, was killed in a targeted US bombing in Fallujah Sept. 17.

In prison, each group had an emir, or prince, who was akin to a block captain, taking care of practical needs; in addition, each group of political prisoners had a "ka'ed," or leader, usually someone educated, who offered moral authority. Zarqawi was an emir, according to Rababa.

"The prince supplies what you need, and you have to obey him," Rababa said. "The leader has special qualifications, charisma, ideology, that draw people to him and win their confidence."

His followers stayed close to him not because of his charisma, but because of his strict personal code and his loyalty.

Rababa and abu Doma said Zarqawi carried a paraplegic member of his group "gently, like a baby." If friends needed money, he would borrow it on their behalf.

In 1999, Zarqawi and the other prisoners were freed in an amnesty. By then, abu Doma said, Zarqawi had branded him a "kafir," or infidel, because of their political disagreements.

Zarqawi never spoke of bin Laden in prison, the men recalled.

A year after his release from prison, Jordanian officials charged him with planning a terror attack against a religious site. Zarqawi went underground, and within two years was linked to several crimes, including Foley's murder.

Dr. Basel Ishaq abu Sabha, who treated Zarqawi and his followers in prison from 1998 until 1999, believes that American officials have attributed larger-than-life qualities to Zarqawi and his terrorist band, and that Jordanian officials have done the same by indicting Zarqawi in several thwarted plots, including an alleged plan to set off a chemical bomb in Amman a plan some Western officials said was exaggerated.

"Abu Musab, he is one guy. You will find a thousand like him in Iraq now," abu Sabha said. "This is a state fighting America, not just Abu Musab's small group. I think they can't do all these things."