WASHINGTON (AFP) – The war in Iraq, which President George W. Bush said was necessary to combat Islamic extremism, is beginning to export guerilla fighters to neighboring countries and beyond, The New York Times reported on its website late Sunday.
Citing unnamed US, European and Middle Eastern government officials, the newspaper said some of the fighters appear to be spreading around the world in waves of Iraqi refugees crossing borders.
But others are dispatched from Iraq for specific missions, the report said.
Major General Achraf Rifi, general director of the Internal Security Forces in Lebanon, is quoted as saying in a recent interview that “if any country says it is safe from this, they are putting their heads in the sand.”
Last week, the Lebanese Army found itself in a battle against a militant group, Fatah al Islam, whose ranks included as many as 50 veterans of the war in Iraq, according to General Rifi.
The group’s leader, Shakir al-Abssi, was an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed last summer, The Times said.
Militant leaders warn that the situation in Lebanon is indicative of the spread of fighters, the paper noted.
“You have 50 fighters from Iraq in Lebanon now, but with good caution I can say there are a hundred times that many, 5,000 or higher, who are just waiting for the right moment to act,” Doctor Mohammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident in Britain who runs the jihadist Internet forum Tajdeed.net, is quoted in the story as saying.
“The flow of fighters is already going back and forth, and the fight will be everywhere until the United States is willing to cease and desist.”
In Saudi Arabia last month, officials said they had arrested 172 men who had plans to attack oil installations, public officials and military posts, and some of the men appeared to have trained in Iraq, according to the report.
Officials in Europe said in interviews that they are trying to monitor small numbers of Muslim men who have returned home after traveling for short periods to Iraq, where they were likely to have fought alongside insurgents.
One of them, an Iraqi-born Dutch citizen, Wesam al-Delaema, was accused by United States prosecutors of making repeated trips to Iraq from his home in the Netherlands to prepare instructional videos on making roadside bombs, charges he denies, the paper said.
In an April 17 report written for the United States government, Dennis Pluchinsky, a former senior intelligence analyst at the State Department, said battle-hardened militants from Iraq posed a greater threat to the West than extremists who trained in Afghanistan because Iraq had become a laboratory for urban guerrilla tactics, The Times noted.