RAMADI, Iraq – Senior American officials are sending a message that violence against U.S. soldiers in Iraq is increasingly the work of foreign fighters — by implication, Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda (search) network.
But Iraqis and American officers on the ground say the evidence is stronger that Iraqis angry at American occupation and Saddam Hussein loyalists are behind most attacks.
The U.S. officers blamed the persistent resistance on disgruntled Iraqis or officials of Saddam's Baath Party who lost out when his regime crumbled. Iraqis say American heavy-handedness in conducting searches and making arrests were recruiting local people to the insurgency.
Still, a drumbeat of comments by Bush administration officials depict the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq as part of the larger war on terrorism and seek to turn the focus away from the threat of Saddam's still unfound weapons of mass destruction.
In the past week, the Gen. Richard B. Myers (search), chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (search); Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq; and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz all have made statements suggesting foreign terrorists were an increasing problem for American forces.
"Iraq now is the central battle in the war on terrorism," Wolfowitz declared on Fox television.
Sanchez spoke of foreign fighters infiltrating the country, and Myers said U.S. officials were getting good intelligence in Iraq on Al Qaeda
However, their statements offered no figures on the number of infiltrators from elsewhere in the Arab or Muslim world, and U.S. authorities have yet to put any captured foreign fighters on display.
In Anbar Province west of Baghdad, a hotbed of resistance to the U.S. occupation, army spokesman Capt. Mike Calver said intelligence suggested "ex-regime (figures) and loyalists, who have a lot of weapons and information, are paying young men" to carry out the attacks on Americans .
"We think Saddam Fedayeen are operating in this area," he said, referring to a loyalist militia. "We suspect there are ex-regime loyalists — people who are much disenfranchised with the loss of the regime."
Calver said the existence or depth of foreign intervention was not clear. "We suspect that this may be true, but I don't think we can quantify at this time how many attacks are carried out by Al Qaeda or Saddam loyalists," he said.
He added that captured resistance fighters "are still being processed" and that the army is "building a profile" on them.
A second commander in the region around Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital 60 miles west of Baghdad, said disgruntled residents — some of them religious people offended by the presence of non-Muslim U.S. forces — and former Baath Party members were behind the attacks on Americans.
"There are different pictures on each level, different elements function in different places," said Lt. Col. Henry Kievernaar commander of the 3rd Squadron of Third Armored Cavalry.
"I am not sure if it's a real organized resistance. It's individual," he said.
Dozens of Iraqis interviewed in the region — many of whom said they had links to the resistance — insisted none of the attacks on Americans was the work of foreigners. They said that most of the 4,000 to 6,000 Arab fighters who flooded into the country before the war began have either been killed or fled.
Those interviewed said U.S. officials wanted show the world that Iraqis supported the American occupation and therefore were blaming foreign fighters for the insurgency.
"They are claiming there are Al Qaeda fighters in order to justify to their people their invasion and occupation of Iraq," said Sheik Diyab Younis Zo'ebi, 62, a tribal leader in Fallujah, about 18 miles east of Ramadi.
"We and Al Qaeda are two opposite things. Bin Laden (fighters) cannot come into Iraq ... because we will not let them. They are enemies of our religion," he said.
Abdel-Karim Jabar Salman, a staff officer in Saddam's Republican Guard, said that if the Americans had captured attackers who belong to Al Qaeda, "Why haven't they paraded them on television?"
But even if there is no evidence of a major foreign or Al Qaeda presence, Iraq would appear to be a lure to extremists in the long run because of the large numbers of Americans in the country and the ease of entering the still chaotic country.
In interviews with The Associated Press in the Ramadi and Fallujah region, men hinted at ties to the resistance but feared exposure if they claimed outright to be part of the insurgency.
"We don't give out information about the resistance or even talk about it because we are afraid of spies who work for the Americans," said Mohammed, a 21-year-old university student.
Others, when asked if they had carried out attacks against Americans, said they would when the time was right. The older men said the true resistance had not yet begun.
"These are simple operations. It's the work of juveniles. But the professionals are waiting and are ready to act with the slightest signal," said Salman, the former senior officer with the Saddam's Republican Guard.
The young men, with their university or high school exams just ended, said they were now ready to join the resistance.
Of the scores interviewed, only Mohammed, the 21-year-old student in Fallujah, claimed he had heard of Afghans and Syrians linked to Al Qaeda living in his town. He had not seen any of them, he said, but had been asked by a fellow Iraqi to raise money for the fighters. He maintained many of the town's businessmen donated money or sold weapons to the guerrillas.
"It's for a good cause," he said.