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How US fuelled myth of Zarqawi the mastermind
By Adrian Blomfield outside Fallujah
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader believed to be responsible for the abduction of Kenneth Bigley, is 'more myth than man', according to American military intelligence agents in Iraq.
Several sources said the importance of Zarqawi, blamed for many of the most spectacular acts of violence in Iraq, has been exaggerated by flawed intelligence and the Bush administration's desire to find "a villain" for the post-invasion mayhem.
Zarqawi fuels his ambition with the release of a video of the beheading of Nick Berg
US military intelligence agents in Iraq have revealed a series of botched and often tawdry dealings with unreliable sources who, in the words of one source, "told us what we wanted to hear".
"We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," the agent said.
"Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one."
The sprawling US intelligence community is in a state of open political warfare amid conflicting pressures from election-year politics, military combat and intelligence analysis. The Bush administration has seized on Zarqawi as the principal leader of the insurgency, mastermind of the country's worst suicide bombings and the man behind the abduction of foreign hostages. He is held up as the most tangible link to Osama bin Laden and proof of the claim that the former Iraqi regime had links to al-Qa'eda.
However, fresh intelligence emerging from around Fallujah, the rebel-held city that is at the heart of the insurgency, suggests that, despite a high degree of fragmentation, the insurgency is led and dominated not by Arab foreigners but by members of Iraq's Sunni minority.
Human intelligence about Zaqawi is minimal
Pentagon estimates have put the number of foreign fighters in the region of 5,000. However, one agent said: "The overwhelming sense from the information we are now getting is that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed several hundred and is perhaps as low as 200. From the information we have gathered we have to conclude that Zarqawi is more myth than man. He isn't in the calibre of what many politicians want to believe he is.
"At some stage, and perhaps even now, he was almost certainly behind some of the kidnappings. But if there is a main leader of the insurgency he would be an Iraqi. The insurgency, though, is not nearly so centralised to talk of a structured leadership."
Military intelligence officials complain that their reports to Washington, are largely being ignored. They accuse the Pentagon of over-reliance on electronic surveillance and aerial and satellite reconnaissance carried out for the CIA.
In recent weeks American military command in Iraq has claimed a series of precision air strikes on targets in Fallujah identified by the CIA as housing known associates of Zarqawi.
It has denied that there were any civilian casualties, despite television footage showing dead and wounded women and children being pulled from the rubble of flattened homes.
Some US military spies maintain that this is evidence of continued dependency on technology over old-fashioned human intelligence.
Both President George W Bush and Tony Blair have, to varying degrees, conceded that intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programme was misleading. But both continue to maintain that the continued violence since Saddam was ousted is because Iraq is now the front line in the war on terrorism.
Yet it now seems that the intelligence on which such claims are based is haphazard, scanty and contradictory.
No concrete proof of the link between Zarqawi and bin Laden was offered until US officials this year trumpeted the discovery of a computer disk, allegedly intercepted by Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas. Among its files was an apparent draft of a letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden.
"We will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner, complying with your orders and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media," the letter read.
That seemed proof enough for the US government. "Zarqawi is the best evidence of the connection to al-Qa'eda affiliates and al-Qa'eda," Mr Bush said in June.
But senior diplomats in Baghdad claim that the letter was almost certainly a hoax. They say the two men may have met in Afghanistan but it appeared they never got on and there has been a rift for several years.
One diplomat claimed that there was evidence to suggest that Zarqawi's aides may have passed on information to the Americans that led to the arrest of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the main planners of the September 11 attacks.
The diplomats describe Zarqawi as deeply ambitious. His actions are aimed as much at boosting his position in the Islamic terrorist fraternity as striking at America. He achieved that in April when a grisly and apparently authentic video showing the beheading of the contractor Nick Berg. The footage was released under the title "Sheikh Abu Musab Zarqawi executes an American with his own hands and promises Bush more".
A diplomat commented: "That catapaulted Zarqawi to exactly where he wanted to be - giving Osama a run for his money as US public enemy number one. But, the video apart, intelligence on the Jordanian is thin.
Intelligence reports are contradictory even on whether he is missing a leg.
Initial claims of a Long John Silver character with an artificial leg were disputed by more recent alleged sightings of the 38-year-old apparently fully limbed and looking rather sprightly.