Beirut, Lebanon Whenever a car bombing, beheading or other spectacular act of violence takes place in Iraq these days, U.S. officials are quick to blame Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. If he hasn't already taken responsibility himself.
But according to an Arab intelligence assessment, al-Zarqawi is not capable of carrying out the level of attacks in Iraq that he has claimed and that American officials have blamed on him.
Al-Zarqawi's own militant group has fewer than 100 members inside Iraq, although al-Zarqawi has close ties to a Kurdish Islamist group with at least several hundred members, according to two reports produced by an Arab intelligence service. The Kurdish group, Ansar al-Islam, has provided dozens of recruits for suicide bombings since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the reports say. And while U.S. forces relentlessly pound the insurgent strongholds of Fallujah and Samarra, claiming to hit al-Zarqawi safe houses, the elusive militant could be hiding in the northern city of Mosul.
The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, 37, has used the media effectively to inflate his role in the Iraqi insurgency. In recent months, he and his supporters have claimed responsibility for scores of suicide bombings, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners, and coordinated uprisings in several Iraqi cities.
The reports say al-Zarqawi is likely responsible for the beheadings of American contractor Nicholas Berg and several other foreigners. But the sheer level of other attacks that he has claimed is not consistent with the number of supporters he has inside Iraq and his ability to move around the country, according to the analysis. The reports say former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime are responsible -- either directly or by paying others to carry them out -- for many of the attacks, especially sophisticated roadside bombings and ambushes of U.S. troops.
The assessment contradicts many of the Bush administration's statements about al-Zarqawi and his terrorist network. Before invading Iraq in March 2003, the administration argued that al-Zarqawi was a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials said al-Zarqawi had taken refuge in Baghdad and was a major link between Saddam's regime and bin Laden's al-Qaida network. But that assertion has never been proven, and there are doubts about al-Zarqawi's relationships with both bin Laden and Saddam's government, as some Bush administration officials have acknowledged in recent months. In July, U.S. officials raised the reward for information leading to al-Zarqawi's arrest or killing to $25 million -- equal to the bounty on bin Laden's head.
A senior Arab intelligence official shared the contents of the report with Newsday last week on the condition neither he nor his country would be identified. The intelligence service has a track record of infiltrating militant groups, and it kept a close watch on Saddam's regime for decades.
U.S. officials have erred in focusing so much attention since February on al-Zarqawi as the main force behind the insurgency, according to the reports, which were produced for the Arab country's political leadership. The analysis has not been shared with U.S. officials.