WASHINGTON — U.S. and foreign intelligence officials tell NBC News they have credible intelligence that insurgents in Iraq have active plans to launch a massive offensive early next week — timed to coincide with the possible draft of an Iraqi constitution on Monday.
According to the officials, terrorists would launch as many as 20 simultaneous suicide bombings, mostly in Baghdad. The plans also include heavy rocket and mortar attacks against U.S. and Iraqi government offices inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, against the U.S. military at Baghdad International Airport, and at Abu Ghraib prison.
U.S. officials say the offensive was planned for early this week but was put on hold when Iraqis failed to come up with a draft constitution.
At the same time, some Pentagon officials now acknowledge that the two-and-a-half-year insurgent war has turned Iraq into a terrorist training camp.
U.S. intelligence indicates Islamic militants from several African nations — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Somalia — travel through Syria into Iraq, where they get hands-on training in roadside and suicide bombings, assassinations and kidnappings as well as counter-surveillance and counter-intelligence against military targets, constantly changing their tactics to counter American defenses.
“They can change within seven to 10 days,” says the U.S. Marine commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, “That’s pretty darn good. We’re going against a thinking enemy.”
And Pentagon officials now fear those freshly trained terrorists are taking the deadly lessons they learn in Iraq to other countries. U.S. intelligence indicates many of the militants are returning home or slipping into Europe, where they may join existing terrorist groups or create and train new cells of their own.
That’s exactly the opposite of what the Bush administration had in mind when it invaded Iraq.
“Instead of going in to eliminate Iraq as a source of terrorism, Iraq now has a stronger terrorist presence than it did when Saddam Hussein was in power,” says NBC News terrorism analyst Roger Cressey.
A new army of terrorists now being trained could remain a threat long after the U.S.-led war in Iraq is over.
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