Does Al-Zarqawi exist??


This is an attempt to summarise the stories for Block Two and to list some things which you might be able to do at your end


09 Oct 2005: The Independent on Sunday - Page 21 - (1051 words)

He's at the heart of Iraq's troubles ' the US made sure of that: Three years

ago Zarqawi was just a small-time jihadist. Loretta Napoleoni on the

manufacture of a nightmare

By: Loretta Napoleoni

Last week US forces in Iraq chose the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month

of fasting, to launch a new offensive along the Syrian border against Abu

Musab al-Zarqawi, the man they blame for most of the violence racking the

country. But, as before, all they have succeeded in doing is bolstering his

myth.

No one had heard of Zarqawi until Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State,

named him in the February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council which

prepared the world for war in Iraq. At that stage the Jordanian was not

recognised as a leader by al-Qa'ida. But, thanks to his relentless

promotion as a bogeyman by the US ' most recently by President George Bush

last week ' and his subsequent endorsement by Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi, 38,

is now every bit as dangerous as he has always been portrayed.

Born Ahmed Fadel al-Khalayleh in Zarqa, a poor industrial Jordanian city

encircled by Palestinian refugee camps, Zarqawi grew up in a miserable

working-class neighbourhood where traditional and tribal values mixed badly

with Western consumerism and rapid modernisation. Of Bedouin origin, he was

stubborn, unruly and rebellious.

At 16 he dropped out of school and became a street tough. Arrested for

sexual assault, he came into contact with religious radicals in jail and

was recruited to the mujahedin in Afghanistan on his release. He arrived

too late to fight the Soviets, but befriended Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi in

Peshawar. According to Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist who met them

both, Zarqawi absorbed from Maqdisi the uncompromising, destructive nature

of radical Salafism, which shuns both Western and Arab socio-economic and

political realities. In 1993 the pair returned to Zarqa and set up a

jihadist cell to overturn the Jordanian government, which soon saw them

jailed for five years.

In captivity Zarqawi's leadership qualities became apparent. Torture and

solitary confinement did not break him; on the contrary. 'He was a real

leader, a prince, as the inmates called him,' says Sami al-Majaali, former

head of the prison authority in Jordan. 'We were always careful in

approaching him. He was our primary concern; if he co-operated, the others

would follow suit.'

On his release, Zarqawi ended up once again in Afghanistan. In 2000, in

Kandahar, he finally met Bin Laden, who invited him and his followers to

join al-Qa'ida. But the Jordanian declined the offer. His focus was on

corrupt Arab regimes and, specifically, his native Jordan, not the faraway

US enemy.

Those who know Zarqawi say this was perfectly in line with his personality.

'He never followed others,' admits a member of his group, 'I never heard

him praise anyone apart from the Prophet.'

With the backing of the Taliban regime, Zarqawi set up a small camp in

Herat, near the Iranian border, to train suicide bombers for attacks in

their home countries. The relationships forged there enabled him and his

followers to escape after the fall of the Taliban to Iraqi Kurdistan, where

they came to the attention of the Kurdish secret services. In the wake of

the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Kurds alerted the US to Zarqawi's links with

jihadist groups in their territory. US authorities did not recognise his

name and got in touch with their Jordanian counterparts to find out more.

From then on, Zarqawi's list of crimes multiplied. He was accused of

masterminding a foiled plot during the millennium celebrations in Jordan,

and of the assassinations of Yitzhak Snir, an Israeli citizen, and Laurence

Foley, a US diplomat. But Mr Powell's announcement of 5 February 2003 '

'Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab

al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida lieutenants'

' lifted him to another plane. Having failed to prove Iraq had weapons of

mass destruction, the US administration was constructing its case for war

on Saddam Hussein's connection with terrorism, with Zarqawi the link to

al-Qa'ida.

Almost overnight, the Jordanian went from being an unknown in the world of

international terrorism to being implicated in every major terror attack.

But while politicians, intelligence and the media were busy weaving the

myth, he was getting ready for battle in Iraq.

According to one of his fighters, he refrained from involvement in the

official war, knowing he could not compete with the B-52s, missiles and

other hi-tech US weapons. Instead he waited until August 2003, when the

Shia insurgency was in full swing and Iraqis saw coalition forces as

occupying powers.

His first move was the bomb that destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad

and killed its leading representative in Iraq. Another bombing killed Grand

Ayatollah Moham- mad Bakr al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the

Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of America's allies. Finally, Zarqawi

himself beheaded a kidnapped US contractor, Nicholas Berg, on camera.

But, contrary to what Mr Powell had said, Zarqawi was unknown in Iraq: a

foreigner leading a small group of Arab fighters. Lacking religious

authority, he was unable to rally the Iraqi Sunni population. His

leadership needed legitimacy ' and that could be provided only by

al-Qa'ida. From August 2003, Zarqawi repeatedly sought Bin Laden's approval

and recognition.

Their correspondence explains why the Jordanian wanted to drive a wedge

between the Sunni and Shia insurgencies. Zarqawi feared a united

nationalist resistance, which would necessarily be secular and would shun

the Arab jihadists. Keeping the Islamist warriors at the forefront of the

anti- American battle was paramount to building a Sunni Islamist state in

Iraq. Thus, from the beginning, Zarqawi fought on two fronts: against the

Shias and against the Americans.

And the West helped him obtain the endorsement he craved, by blaming him for

every attack inside and outside Iraq, especially suicide missions and the

resistance in Fallujah. In December 2004 Bin Laden finally granted his

support and named him 'emir' of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. That in turn has enabled

the Jordanian to attract enough followers and resources to engage US forces

while keeping up the suicide bombings against Shias that have brought Iraq

to the brink of civil war.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is now at the core of the Iraqi insurgency, but he

would not be there without both the US administration and al-Qa'ida. It is

a surreal coincidence.

Loretta Napoleoni is the author of 'Insurgent Iraq: al-Zarqawi and the New

Generation', published on 13 October by Constable & Robinson, pounds 7.99

04 Oct 2004: The Daily Telegraph - Page 14 - (899 words)

International: How US fuelled myth of Zarqawi the mastermind

By: 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, had been exaggerated by flawed

intelligence and the Bush administration's desire to find "a villain" for

the post-invasion mayhem.

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.

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 the 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 with 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.

25 Sep 2004: The Guardian - Broadsheet Page 8 - (391 words)

Iraq crisis: Few clues in hunt for mastermind

By: Rory McCarthy in Baghdad

The search for the mastermind of the kidnapping of Kenneth Bigley has

centred on the restive town of Falluja, but despite months of work and the

offer of a $25m (pounds 13.8m) reward, US forces still appear to be chasing

shadows.

There have been no publicly confirmed sightings of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, no

confirmation of which town he may be operating from, or even evidence to

show he is in the country.

For weeks US fighter jets and marines have hit targets in Falluja, 32 miles

west of Baghdad. The town is the centre of the Sunni insurgency, controlled

almost completely by militants, and thought to be the main base for foreign

fighters. It is the most obvious place to find Zarqawi, although many

suspect he could operate from several other places across Iraq.

Nearly every day for the past three weeks jets have bombed houses in the

city. Each time the US military says it is hitting forces "linked to the

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi terrorist network". Reports from inside the town

confirm that some of the strikes have hit insurgents, although civilians

are often injured in the attacks.

Occasionally the targeting is more precise. Last week, in an attack not

publicised by the US military, the spiritual leader of Zarqawi's network,

Sheikh Abu Anas al-Shami, was killed in an air strike in western Baghdad.

The hunt for Zarqawi is being conducted differently to the pursuit of Saddam

Hussein. That operation was led by special forces soldiers and intelligence

officers, backed up by US troops who spent weeks unravelling the networks

of loyalty upon which Saddam relied.

That force has reportedly moved to Afghanistan to search for Osama bin

Laden.

The search for Zarqawi rests in the first instance with the US marines, who

divulge little about their tactics, although they rely to a large extent on

informers in the town.

One recent Zarqawi video made an elaborate case against an Egyptian who it

said had been caught placing computer chips in houses in Falluja to help

target US air strikes. The man was shown confessing to being paid by the

Americans and was killed.

Similar videos have accused the Iraqi National Guard of trying to betray the

insurgents.

US commanders say they may launch a full-scale offensive against the town.

But for now Zarqawi remains on the run, with his group claiming

responsibility for ever more suicide bombings, assassinations and kidnaps.

Rotten -

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The first time most Americans heard the name of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was when Colin Powell stood before the United Nations to make his case for invading Iraq.

While much of Powell's statement turned out to be fictional, Zarqawi is unfortunately quite real.

As is often the case with the terrorist underground, we know a lot about Zarqawi and yet not nearly enough. For instance, such basic details as his real name and the country of his birth remain obscure. He is believed to have been born in Jordan, possibly of Palestinian descent. His aliases include Fadel Nazzal al-Khalayleh, Fadil al-Khalaylah, Ahmad Fadil Al-Khalailah and just Habib. One of the Fad'l variations is probably in the neighborhood of his birth name. He may or may not be missing a leg, which is a much more important issue than you might think.

Zarqawi hails from the town of Zarqa, Jordan, from whence his best-known alias is derived. He's thought to be a high school dropout. Zarqawi went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the late 1980s, which has been the ruin of many a poor boy. In Afghanistan, Zarqawi plugged into the al Qaeda terrorist network, at the time fighting the Soviet Union with the support of the CIA. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Qaeda ran training camps where angry young men met other angry young men and formed lifelong friendships.

One of the people Zarqawi is known to have met in the training camps was a young Pakistani explosives expert named Abdel Basit, who would later be known to the world as Ramzi Yousef. Other major terrorists were working in the camps at that time, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the big cheese, Osama bin Laden, who was more or less running the operation.

Jordan, like other Middle Eastern states, recognized the threat posed by Afghan mujahideen much earlier than the West. Jordan and Egypt, among other countries, responded to that perceived threat by arbitrarily imprisoning the mujahideen, usually without charge and often under brutal conditions. Not surprisingly, this treatment only increased their anger and radicalism.

Right or wrong, when Zarqawi returned to Jordan in the early 1990s, he was jailed and spent seven years in jail. When he emerged, he was a full-blown radical who (according to Jordanian authorities) immediately began plotting attacks on U.S. and Israeli tourists in Jordan. He fled to Pakistan soon after leaving prison.

From the start, intelligence officials believe, Zarqawi only worked with bin Laden to further his goal of setting up his own terrorist shop.

Zarqawi's original plan was to overthrow the government of Jordan, but when he was smoked out of the country and sentenced to death in absentia, he went traveling, first to Europe then back to the Middle East and South Asia. Zarqawi allegedly ran a semi-independent shop on the border between Afghanistan and Iran, teaching his students how to use poisons and chemical weapons in terrorist attacks. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi had to make tracks. According to Colin Powell, that's when the trouble really began.

The Z-man found shelter in Iran for a while, but Colin Powell didn't care. According to U.S. intelligence, Zarqawi traveled to Iraq in early 2002, and allegedly began associating with Ansar al-Islam, an impoverished group of 600 to 800 Iraqi Kurds whose stated goal was to secede from Saddam's Iraq so that its tiny, ethnically exclusive clan could go hide out in the mountains.

Of course, there's room for a different interpretation of Ansar's role. For instance, if you're Colin Powell and you're desperate to sell an Iraq invasion to the international community, you could argue that Ansar was a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder."

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a nexus as "A means of connection; a link or tie." Whatever else Ansar was, it certainly wasn't a nexus.

Geographically stuck between Iran, Iraq and the mainstream Kurds, Ansar was not an effective force in the region. al Qaeda briefly cultivated a relationship with the group, because of its strategic location relative to Afghanistan. When bin Laden and his crew were forced to retreat to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, al Qaeda's interest in Asnar faded.

According to the U.S. pre-Iraq party line, Zarqawi used his "base" in Iraq to stage bombings and terrorist attacks in Turkey and Morocco. Powell told the U.N. that Zarqawi received medical treatment during a stay in Baghdad in May 2002. This was supposed to illustrate Saddam's alliance with al Qaeda. (No one ever talks about the fact that Ramzi Yousef received medical treatment from a hospital in New Jersey after a minor car accident in 1993. Did Bill Clinton personally fluff his pillow?)

As it turns out, the report of medical treatment wasn't even credible to begin with. According to U.S. intelligence, Zarqawi had a leg amputated in Baghdad. Except that most sources now believe Zarqawi is equipped with two working legs. As Newsweek colorfully put in in early 2004, "The stark fact is that we don’t even know for sure how many legs Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi has, let alone whether the Jordanian terrorist, purportedly tied to al Qaeda, is really behind the latest outrages in Iraq."

The remainder of Powell's claims about Iraq were less than airtight, as we all know by now. There is virtually no evidence to support claims that al Qaeda and Iraq were working together. bin Laden openly advocated the overthrow of Hussein before the U.S. decided to invade. There may well have been al Qaeda operatives in Baghdad, but there were also al Qaeda operatives in New York, Madrid, Cairo, Fort Lauderdale and Norman, Oklahoma.

Although they've stopped repeating the above claims, the U.S. government has not formally retracted its claims about Zarqawi, despite extensive media reports casting doubt on most of Powell's speech. But that doesn't mean the Z-Man's usefulness as a propaganda tool has ended. Far from it. The U.S. government has significantly upped the ante on Zarqawi's status since toppling Saddam Hussein. According to the Pentagon, Zarqawi has been a lightning rod for Iraq's resistance to the U.S. occupation force. U.S. intelligence sources speaking on and off the record now blame Zarqawi for virtually every terrorist attack seen in the last year, including the 3/11 Madrid train bombing and bomb attacks on Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq.

In February 2004, the U.S. claimed it had intercepted a letter from Zarqawi to al Qaeda, outlining his strategy in Iraq and asking for reinforcements. In addition to "proving" once and for all that Zarqawi was an al Qaeda evildoer, the letter further explained that Zarqawi was responsible for bombing the Shi'ites (most al Qaeda terrorists are Sunni Muslims):

We are striving urgently and racing against time to create companies of mujahidin that will repair to secure places and strive to reconnoiter the country, hunting the enemy –- Americans, police, and soldiers -- on the roads and lanes. We are continuing to train and multiply them. As for the Shi`a, we will hurt them, God willing, through martyrdom operations and car bombs.

Even MORE convenient than the al Qaeda link was the fact that the letter seemed like a sure bet to drive a wedge between the Shi'ites and Sunnis. If Sunni extremists were deliberately targeting Shi'ites, then obviously the two groups couldn't possibly join forces against the U.S. occupation and its hand-picked provisional government.

The letter didn't stop Sunnis and Shi'ites from doing just that, however. Unfortunately for our intrepid protagonists, the letter was quickly judged to be a forgery by just about anyone whose opinion mattered. Even Western journalists openly scoffed at the letter's authenticity, let alone the conspiracy-obsessed Arab world, which went to town over the incident. The U.S. didn't help matters by flatly refusing to discuss how it got its hands on the letter. "The important thing is that we have this document in our hands," explained Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt in February. "How it was found is not as important as the fact that we have it." Given the U.S. intelligence record to date, that's a pretty iffy proposition.

By now, you may be wondering what a reasonable person can actually claim to know about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and it's a good question. The piles of misinformation are so deep that it's nearly impossible to divine the truth. Shortly after the 3/11 bombing of a Madrid commuter train, pundits began speculating on a Zarqawi link, based on comments by French terrorism investigator Jean-Charles Brisard. The most compelling reason to think this might be true is that it didn't come from the U.S. government.

Despite all the laborious U.S. efforts to prove a link, most independent experts believe Zarqawi is not operating on behalf of al Qaeda, a conclusion which the U.S. military reluctantly conceded in early 2004.

In recent media interviews with captured Ansar al-Islam operatives, the terrorists said they never laid eyes on Zarqawi (the interviewees provided other verifiable information on Ansar activities). Ansar itself has been more or less made obsolete by the U.S. invasion, which spurred an influx of thousands of foreign fighters into Iraq (some al Qaeda-linked, but others not). In early 2004, some Iraqi insurgents claimed in a leaflet that Zarqawi had been killed. Not too many people believe this to be true.

A tape released in April 2004 appeared to be from the Z-Man himself. According to the tape, Zarqawi took credit for several bomb attacks against U.S. and coalition forces. He pointedly did not take credit for the attacks on Shi'ites, but he did castigate the Shi'ites as "idolators." He called on Iraqis to "burn the earth under the occupiers' feet." After the tape was released, the U.S. increased its reward for his capture to $25 million -- on a par with bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri before their recent increases to $50 million.

In May, Zarqawi made himself into a star of the Internet with a homemade snuff video that really got people talking. The video, released with the catchy title "Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughters an American infidel with his own hands" delivered pretty much as advertised, ending with a scene of Zarqawi brandishing the decapitated head of an American civilian named Nicholas Berg.

About the only evil act missing from the long list of charges against Zarqawi had been any use of the chemical weapons which are his alleged specialty. It was especially odd since (from what we hear) Iraq was just chock-full of evil chemicals waiting for such attacks.

However, that oversight was rectified in late April 2004, when Jordanian officials named Zarqawi the mastermind of a foiled plot to kill 80,000 people with a chemical attack. (Bear in mind that this estimate may be a trifle high. Ramzi Yousef planned to kill 250,000 people in his 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The actual death count was six.)

And just how many legs does Zarqawi have anyway? We're going to have to get back to you on that, but we can definitively state the answer is no more than three and no less than zero. Probably.

Does al-Zarqawi exist??11/10/2005 14:46 - (SA)

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News24.com

Baghdad - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's faction has claimed responsibility for attacks that have left hundreds of Iraqis dead, and the United States has called him the most dangerous terrorist in Iraq.

Still, even as al-Zarqawi threatens more chaos - in recordings and internet messages - many Iraqis believe the Jordanian militant does not even exist and is merely a phantom created by the Americans to sow unrest in the country.

Similar disbelief greeted Britain's explanation that its soldiers, arrested in southern Iraq disguised as Arabs, were on an undercover hunt for terrorists. Instead, some Iraqis argue the soldiers were out to kill Shi'ite Muslims and blame the murders on Sunnis in hopes of sparking civil war.

Such conspiracy theories are common among Arabs and may seem laughable to outsiders. But in Iraq, where rulers from British colonists to Saddam Hussein regularly played one ethnic group against the other, imagined plots can seem reasonable - a fact that may have dire consequences for US efforts to build a stable Iraqi government.

Opposition to constitution

Indeed, ethnic and religious groups typically at odds are now standing united against the US-backed push for Iraqis to adopt a new constitution in a referendum om Friday and elect a permanent government in December. These steps, they say, are really intended to tighten the grip of America and Britain - the old master in Iraq - on the counry's oil wealth.

"Zarqawi is ... a myth that America has created to put a face to the terrorism it wants to stoke in this country to justify its continued presence," Sheik Amer al-Husseini, a top aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

"If there was no more terrorism in Iraq, there would be no reason for the United States to remain ... making it harder for them to ... force this constitution on Iraqis," said al-Husseini.

Such arguments only add to confusion among many Iraqis who already are faced with different views from religious leaders. The radical al-Sadr has hinted he opposes the new constitution, while Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iranian-born cleric who holds the greatest sway over Iraqi Shi'ites, has urged its passage.

US officials had hoped that such rifts, more common between the Shi'ites and Sunnis, would have been overcome with the June 2004 handover of sovereignty and the January elections that brought the current government to power.

But each time, the same hardline Shi'ite and Sunni groups who had ridiculed the war to topple Saddam as a US effort to seize control over Iraqi oil, remained unconvinced.

As a result, little has changed in Iraq, once the seat of proud Islamic empires upon which Iraqis now look back in wonder as they survey a landscape pockmarked by bombs and sown with civilian corpses