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Foreigners are cited in new Iraqi violence

BAGHDAD -- As another suicide bombing left at least four more people dead yesterday, US and Iraqi officials linked this week's wave of attacks to an emerging alliance between remnants of the former regime and foreign fighters who came to wage a so-called holy war against US forces.

The rapidly deteriorating security situation has taken nearly 40 lives in two days, a spate of violence President Bush attributed to an insurgency including Saddam Hussein loyalists and "foreign terrorists."

In interviews, former Iraqi intelligence officers and a political analyst also pointed to signs of such an alliance. They said the recent onslaught, including a sophisticated rocket attack and coordinated suicide bombings Monday, reflected a dangerous alliance between former army officers resisting the US occupation and Islamic militants from outside Iraq.

"America's war in Iraq pushed these two together," said Ashem, a former senior officer in the Mukhabarat intelligence service, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared for his life.

"The more pressure that America uses to push Iraqis down, the more the Iraqis will come together with the foreign Islamic fighters to fight America," said Ashem, 43, who in the months before the US invasion of Iraq coordinated the arrival of foreign volunteers from the Arab world.

Ashem was responsible for coordinating transportation, housing, and training of these fighters, according to Iraqis who knew him when he held that position in the intelligence service and who introduced him to a Globe reporter.

In an interview, Ashem estimated that about one-third of the foreign fighters were Islamic militants intent on becoming religious martyrs in what they believe to be a holy war. Like other volunteers, the Islamic militants were given uniforms and weapons and were grafted into units of the Iraqi army scattered throughout the country. Some were veteran fighters from insurgencies within their own countries, Ashem said.

Many of the Islamic fighters refused the uniforms, he said. They dismissed Iraqi officials like Ashem as nonbelievers, but viewed the larger war against the so-called infidels as overriding their concerns about the Iraqis. Many foreigners died in the fighting, and many more fled after the US Army took Baghdad, Ashem said. As many as 500 remain, he said.

"The ones who have stayed in Iraq are the true believers; they are the ones who want to become martyrs," he said in an interview in a Baghdad hotel.

Ashem is from the western region of Iraq along the Syrian border. He said that the 300-mile desert border is extremely porous and that it would be easy for more fighters to cross it.

US officials have estimated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq at between 1,000 and 3,000. American civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III said last month that 248 non-Iraqi fighters had been detained in Iraq, of whom 123 are Syrian.

"The nationalists of the regime and the Islamists from inside and outside the country have become an alliance to fight against the US; I think [Monday's violence] was dramatic evidence of that," said Sadoun al-Dulame, an Iraqi opposition figure who helped establish the transition government and is now executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. But Dulame suggested that US officials should not consider the resistance as merely a "terrorist element."

A recent poll by his institute suggested that two-thirds of Iraqis saw US troops as an occupying force, whileonly 14 percent saw them as liberators. Iraqi frustration with occupation is producing new recruits for the resistance, many of whom are loyal to neither Hussein nor Islamic militants, he said.

Yesterday's violence was not immediately linked to foreign elements, but it added to the unease here.

A car bomb exploded near a police station in Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, killing at least four people and injuring seven. The blast unleashed shrapnel and fire across a crowded intersection near the city's central market.

The US military also reported that the US-appointed deputy mayor of Baghdad, Faris Abdul Razzaq al-Assam, was shot to death in a cafe on Sunday after he returned from an international donors' conference in Madrid, officials announced. The latest burst of violence began Sunday when insurgents used a disguised multiple rocket launcher to hammer a Baghdad hotel with eight rockets, killing an American soldier and narrowly missing US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was staying there during a three-day tour.Monday, the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was the bloodiest day in Baghdad since Hussein's regime fell more than six months ago. Suicide bombers struck the Red Cross headquarters and three police stations, killing eight Iraqi policemen, at least 26 Iraqi civilians, and a US soldier. The Red Cross and other international aid agencies were moving toward further reducing their non-Iraqi staff in Baghdad and possibly pulling out altogether. A fourth police station was targeted, but Iraqi police thwarted the attack and shot and wounded an assailant who US and Iraqi officials said was carrying a Syrian passport.

The assailant, who Iraqi police said is recovering in a Baghdad hospital, raised suspicions that the spate of suicide bombings may have been the work of Islamic militants who were among thousands of volunteer fighters from the Arab world who have come to fight the US presence in Iraq.

"Iraq is a dangerous place," President Bush said during a White House press conference yesterday. "It's a dangerous place because terrorists want us to leave, and we're not leaving."

Britain's special representative in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, told the BBC that the use of suicide bombings in Monday's attacks "is a sign of foreign terrorist tactics, rather than the Saddam loyalist elements that we are still trying to chase down."

(Charles M. Sennott can be reached at sennott@globe.com.)

(Material from wire services was included in this report.)

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