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Jordan catches Iraq’s fire

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Paul Rogers
10 November 2005

In Amman, Jordan, three coordinated hotel bombings on the evening of 9 November killed at least fifty-seven people and injured scores more. In London, on the eve of a government defeat over terrorist legislation, the head of the city’s police force, Ian Blair, talked of "chilling" evidence of new terrorist plots. In Australia, police arrested seventeen people in Sydney and Melbourne in their efforts to foil the "final stages of a large-scale terrorist attack". Three events this week that cross the globe, forming part of a pattern that hardly George W Bush's boasts that the “war on terror” is succeeding.

These three high-profile events are not themselves definitive evidence of trends in this wider war – we know nothing yet of the nature of the "chilling" evidence, and most of the Australian detainees have yet to be charged. But the Jordan attack, alongside little-reported accounts of a fast-developing link between the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, do offer a clearer idea of the evolving character of the conflict.

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Iraq’s trauma

In Iraq, the past five weeks have been among the most difficult for United States troops, and their own reactions have been particularly violent (see “Iraqi and American body-counts”, 27 October 2005). In the period from the start of October to 8 November, 125 US personnel were killed and more than 660 injured, with 250 of the latter sustaining serious injuries.

The most serious problem has been the widespread use of roadside bombs, which have exacted a growing toll of American soldiers despite many changes in the conduct of US operations and improvements in forces’ equipment. Almost all the humvee jeeps that are driven outside the main US bases are now armoured, and in addition US forces use Stryker or Bradley armoured vehicles wherever possible. They also employ improved surveillance equipment, some of it Israeli, and operate experimental bomb-detecting devices that pick up even minor disturbances in the ground surfaces alongside roads and thus indicate where a bomb might be planted.

In face of all of this, Iraq’s insurgents are responding with larger bombs and more sophisticated fusing and detonation systems leading to greater frustration and retaliation by US forces (see “Iraq’s burning month”, 8 September 2005). This is revealed by the intensity of their actions against insurgents in western Iraq in recent days. US sources, having insisted that only insurgents were being killed in the numerous military actions, are now admitting that civilian casualties have resulted (see Kirk Semple, "Civilians die in fighting near Syria", International Herald Tribune, 9 November 2005). This is hardly surprising in light of the frequent use of F/A-18 strike aircraft dropping 225-kg bombs and Super Cobra attack helicopters firing Hellfire missiles in densely-populated urban areas.

Such use of considerable firepower is in the context of vigorous ground operations in which towns and cities are simply cordoned and isolated. The Iraqi group Doctors for Iraq reports that operations in the town of al-Qaim near the Syrian border have involved the closure of all shops, a military curfew, house-to-house searches, the frequent use of strike aircraft and attack helicopters and a ban on ambulances entering the town even though there have been civilian deaths and injuries.

US sources claim success in operations like that in Husayba close to the Syrian border, but multiple insurgent attacks continue elsewhere. These include, in just the two days of 9-10 November, the killing of five police officers near Baquba, two car bombs (killing six and injuring twenty-five in a mainly Shi'a district of Baghdad) and a double suicide-bombing of a restaurant in Baghdad frequented by police officers, killing at least thirty people and wounding many more.

Jordan’s fury

As the insurgency continues in Iraq, Jordan has experienced its second major attack in three months. On 19 August, Katyusha artillery rockets were fired at two US navy ships – including a large amphibious warship, the 40,000-tonne USS Kearsarge – in Aqaba harbour. Because the rockets missed the ships (though one hit a US warehouse, killing a Jordanian guard) the incident was scarcely reported outside the region. Its significance, though, was that the US navy had assessed Aqaba as being safe for its warships, part of a wider view that the Jordanians were succeeding in maintaining high levels of security against the al-Qaida movement. The Aqaba attack made this a dubious analysis and the attacks on the three hotels in Amman on 9 November show this to be even more questionable (see “A jewel for al-Qaida’s crown”, 27 September 2005).

The Amman bombs – targeting the Grand Hyatt, Days Inn and Radisson hotels – were one of the worst incidents of the last four years outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Two suicide-bombers were involved, as well as a truck-bomb assault; there is an immediate presumption that an al-Qaida-linked group is responsible for an operation that killed a number of senior Palestinian officials as well as three elite Chinese students. Some analysts have been quick to say that this latest attack will be deeply counterproductive because of the loss of life among Jordanians. This may be true, but it will be more than countered by the effects of the much greater loss of life resulting from the vigour of US actions in Iraq.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers’s Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

Afghanistan’s learning

One of the most striking current phenomena of the war is that young paramilitaries from Afghanistan are travelling to Iraq for combat training. An article in Le Nouvel Observateur (Sara Daniel & Sami Yousafzsay, "Terrorism: the Return of the Taliban", 3 November 2005), suggests that it is now becoming regular practice for groups to travel from Taliban-controlled areas of southeast Afghanistan to training camps in western Iraq where, as the report puts it, "they learn the secrets of technological jihad".

An example the authors cite is of a group of fifteen militants – including eight Afghans and three Uzbeks – embarking on "the warrior pilgrimage". They spent three months in a camp near Fallujah where they were instructed in the use of improvised explosive devices and remote-controlled detonation systems. Much of the training is described as boring, yet still presenting to the trainees new technologies that could certainly be taken back to their own countries.

Perhaps most significant is the comment of one Afghan about the jihadis in Iraq: "Hatred of America lived in their eyes and their faces; it was so beautiful". What affected them more than anything, and was a powerful motivating force for their future activities, was the deep commitment of the Iraqi insurgents to their cause, and the large numbers of people prepared to take on suicide roles.

Much of this motivation stems from the intensity of US military operations in Iraq, and the persistent use of firepower in towns and villages. The US’s recent actions in al-Qaim are just one example. For al-Qaida, any temporary arrests or setbacks (such as the death of the Jemaah Islamiyah bombmaker Azahari Husin in eastern Java on 9 November) is counterbalanced by the "gift" of having 150,000 US soldiers in the heart of the middle east, using desperate measures to control an insurgency that looks set to last for years. Once more, Iraq and "the war on terror" are deeply connected. The remarkable Iraq-Afghanistan link that is now emerging is only the latest example.

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