The launch of a new jihad

Observations on Iraq

The somnambulant address in the afternoon heat of the press conference broke off. The roar of a very big explosion assaulted the small audience of journalists and cameramen and the lights went out. A few people screamed. Someone started shouting: "Stay where you are! Stay where you are . . ."

In the dim daylight filtering through the pall of dust, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was a scene of shock and confusion. People caked in grime and blood wandered aimlessly. Those unhurt ran to help, desperately pulling the dead and injured from the wreckage.

This was the arrival statement of a new player in the Iraqi struggle. It was the first suicide bombing since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and against a soft target that is not seen by Iraqis as being part of the occupation. Talking to people in Baghdad, it becomes apparent that the genesis of the violence in Iraq is now diverse. It seems the country is the new front line of the jihad that started, in the modern era, in 1979, with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Then, the west backed the jihadis, the young men such as Osama Bin Laden who flocked to the training camps of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province to fight against the Soviet army. But the mujahedin, as we later found out, were fighting for Islam, not for the west.

That war cannot be ignored in considering Iraq. A non-Muslim superpower invades an Islamic nation for strategic gain. After the initial confusion, Islamic resistance builds and a guerrilla war ensues. What started as random acts of violence against occupying troops has become a campaign with the clear objective of destabilising the country and forcing the Americans to leave. This involves not just an increasing number of body bags shipped Stateside, but a daily death toll among innocent Iraqis and the disruption of essential services, both of which serve increasingly to politicise and radicalise the population.

The US occupiers insist that the resistance is the death rattle of the old regime. There probably is a significant proportion of ex-Ba'athists and former security personnel involved, but they are merely old-style terrorists - the kind who fire a rocket or snipe at a checkpoint, at most detonating a remote-controlled car bomb. The sort of terrorist who sends a suicide driver in a truck laden with explosive is from the new world of intifada, and likewise intends to die completing the mission.

There have been news stories over the past week about men with links to Islamic fundamentalist groups in Saudi Arabia escaping the security clampdown in that country. Up to 3,000 are reported to have crossed the Iraqi border to join the resistance in the Sunni heartland. Farther south, intelligence reports indicate that militants, possibly with Iranian backing, are mingled with Shia religious groups and may be engaged in raising the temperature in the British-administered zone.

As in Peshawar during the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and Syria are becoming jumping-off points for the new mujahedin. A Saudi source said: "It's all the talk among the jihadis. What started in an ad hoc manner has now formalised, and there are safe routes into Iraq for weapons and personnel." Just as there were 32 different resistance groups working out of Pakistan by 1983, Iraq is attracting militant Islamic fighters of diverse political persuasions to the new jihad.

Although no particular group has yet claimed responsibility for bombing the UN headquarters, it is clear that anyone foreign is a target. Islam is girding up to fight the invader, and the price has only just begun to mount.

Tim Lambon is a Channel 4 News producer in Baghdad

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