The ominous truth about Iraq

"Ghost soldiers," a new breed of better-trained terrorists, and an insurgent support network nearly a half million strong: These are the faces of America's increasingly dire Iraq problem.

Published June 22, 2005 4:45PM (EDT)

Earlier this week, CIA chief Porter Goss mostly agreed with Vice President Dick Cheney's recent declaration that the insurgency in Iraq was in its "last throes" -- if it isn't quite in the last throes, Goss said, then it's at least "very close to it."

Goss knows otherwise. And that doesn't require being the head of the CIA: Anyone who follows the news from Iraq with any regularity can see plainly that these assessments are absurd, predictable as they may be coming through the gritted teeth of President Bush's loyal wartime lieutenants. For anyone still susceptible to the cheerleading, even after months of bad news, the latest account to lay bare the truth about the war front appears in the June 27 issue of Newsweek -- and it's ominous indeed. "Ghost soldiers," a new breed of better-trained terrorists, and an insurgent support network nearly a half million strong: These are the faces of America's ongoing and increasingly dire Iraq problem.

For starters, enemy infiltration of new Iraqi security forces appears to have grown to chilling proportions. "According to intelligence officials in Baghdad, whose clearances bar them from speaking publicly, Iraq's security services have hundreds of 'ghost soldiers' -- members who vanish, sometimes for months on end, but continue to draw their pay," the magazine reports. "The fear is that they are working for the insurgency while keeping up their ties in uniform. ... Over dinner last week in a fashionable Baghdad neighborhood, Iraqi officials were shaking their heads over news that 176 Iraqi police officers were found to have terrorist connections in the past two weeks."

As top U.S officials have begun talking up the number of enemy killed -- even when the numbers don't add up -- they haven't addressed the insurgency's reportedly vast support network: "According to a U.S. Special Ops source," the Newsweek report continues, "the insurgents include an estimated 1,000 foreign jihadists, 500 homegrown Iraqi jihadists, between 15,000 and 30,000 former regime elements and as many as 400,000 auxiliaries and support personnel. Those figures don't count gangster organizations operating 'in at least 12 of the 18 provinces.' All told, the insurgency is believed to include upwards of 40 reasonably distinct groups that sometimes join forces for particular operations."

But maybe most grim is what the Central Intelligence Agency determined in a recent, highly classified report about the current situation in Iraq -- a report that is completely at odds with Goss' own stated view. There was much debate during last year's presidential race whether the war would ultimately reduce or deepen the terrorist threat; per the CIA's latest assessment, you be the judge:

"The CIA produced a study this May on a topic so sensitive that even the title is classified," says Newsweek. "Jihadists in Iraq are getting direct, on-the-job training in a real-life insurgency, with hands-on experience in bombing, sniping and all the skills of urban warfare, unlike the essentially artificial training that was given at Al Qaeda's rural Afghan camps. One of the paper's main points is that America's Iraqi troubles will not end with the insurgency. In effect, Iraq is producing a new corps of master terrorists with an incandescent hatred for the United States."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Cia Dick Cheney Iraq Iraq War Middle East Terrorism War Room