There is a partisan debate going on inside the Beltway over the number of foreign terrorists inside Iraq. Democrats who seek to undermine the Saddam-al Qaeda link, which was a Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq, insist that only a few hundred "stray" foreign fighters are targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Conversely, Republicans who seek to retroactively bolster the Bush administration's rationale to invade Iraq, insist there are more than 3,000 jihadis in Iraq, mostly al Qaeda fighters.
The truth lies somewhere in between. According to reliable intelligence estimates — both from Iraq and from inside the Beltway — foreign fighters in Iraq number no more than 1,000. Either that, or the U.S. military is just not catching any of them, which would be highly unlikely.
Thankfully, the numbers are drastically lower than they could be. Articles and websites published before the war suggest that al Qaeda expected many thousands of fighters to enter Iraq. An intercepted memo penned by al Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, suggests that the terrorist organization is dismayed by dwindling numbers. Its leaders are struggling with recruitment even as anti-American sentiment is surging in the region. However few, these fighters are still wreaking havoc, having scored some of the more spectacular attacks, including bloody assaults against the U.N., the Jordanian embassy, Basra's oil installations, and multiple beheadings of hostages.
Clouding the picture are other fighters who may be joining their ranks. They include: Ansar al-Islam (the local al Qaeda affiliate from Kurdistan), the Zarkawi network, home-grown Sunni Islamists, nationalist guerrillas, former Baathist regime elements, Iranian-sponsored fighters, and Shiite militias. The terrorist threat in Iraq is best described as a number of overlapping and concentric circles representing different groups.
Given this new and dangerous reality, Bush administration detractors rightly charge that the American presence in Baghdad has prompted a larger terrorist problem. They ignore, however, the fact that Iraq's involvement in terror before the war contributed to the current problems. Iraq served as one of about three dozen smaller hubs for global terrorists in the lead-up to the war. Iraq was not an al Qaeda epicenter like Sudan or Afghanistan. But it also was not like the Philippines, which cooperates with Washington to stamp out al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein allowed a small number of foreign fighters from small jihadi groups around the Muslim world to train on Iraq soil in the late 1990s. It is likely that he also helped Ansar al-Islam operate in Kurdistan. This may have created an infrastructure for the foreign fighters in Iraq today.
But one cannot blame the small but dangerous foreign-fighter problem on Saddam. Before the war, Iran also allowed Ansar al-Islam to operate openly along its borders, ensuring the flow of goods and weapons. When the U.S. struck the Ansar enclave in March 2003, Iran permitted many fighters to flee across the border. After the war, Iran's military helped fighters cross back into Iraq to fight American soldiers in the Sunni heartland. The Kurds capture between three and ten fighters per week crossing the border.
Iran's influence reaches even further. In Basra, the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah operates openly. The Arabic daily newspaper al-Hayat also reports that Iran sent approximately 90 Hezbollah operatives to Iraq just after the war. Thanks to Iranian money and logistics, the group has a rapidly growing presence in Iraq's predominantly Shia south.
From Iranians to al Qaeda fighters to jihadis who have slipped over the Syrian border, the threat of foreign fighters in Iraq is very real. And regardless of their origin — whether Saddam introduced them into Iraq, or if the invasion lured them there — America must defeat them. For one, victory in Iraq equates to winning the freedom and security of some 23 million Iraqis whose future is invested in American success. More broadly, victory would deflate an already dispersed al Qaeda movement. Al Qaeda is weaker than it was before 9/11. Defeating the jihadi movement on Middle Eastern soil would be a heavy blow to Osama bin Laden's affiliates. Conversely, defeat or retreat would create a perception that radical Islam is on the march, while American power is in decline.
The goal now is not to achieve political victory in Iraq to vindicate George W. Bush. The goal is to defeat the forces of radical Islam. Iraq has clearly become the most crucial front in the war on terror. Foreign fighters, no matter how few, are clearly a critical aspect to defeating the insurgency.
Jonathan Schanzer, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, visited Iraq in January. This article was originally presented at a symposium organized by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies on "Iraq's Future and the War on Terrorism."