BAGHDAD: Iraqi insurgents are preparing for an assault on Baghdad, with sleeper cells planted inside the capital to rise up at “Zero Hour” and aid fighters pushing in from the outskirts, according to senior Iraqi and U.S. security officials.
Sunni fighters have seized wide swathes of the north and west of the country in a three week lightning advance and say they are bearing down on the capital, a city of 7 million people still scarred by the intense street fighting between its Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods during U.S. occupation.
The government says it is rounding up members of sleeper cells to help safeguard the capital, and Shiite paramilitary groups say they are helping the authorities. Some Sunni residents say the crackdown is being used to intimidate them.
Iraqis speak of a “Zero Hour” as the moment a previously prepared attack plan would start to unfold.
A high-level Iraqi security official estimated there were 1,500 sleeper cell members hibernating in western Baghdad and a further 1,000 in areas on the outskirts of the capital.
He said their goal was to penetrate the U.S.-made “Green Zone,” a fortified enclave of government buildings on the west bank of the Tigris, as a propaganda victory and then carve out enclaves in west Baghdad and in outlying areas.
“There are so many sleeper cells in Baghdad,” the official said. “They will seize an area and won’t let anyone take it back ... In western Baghdad, they are ready and prepared.”
A man who describes himself as a member of one such cell, originally from Anbar province, a heartland of the insurgency, said he has been working in Baghdad as a laborer while secretly coordinating intelligence for his group of Sunni fighters.
The attack on the capital will come soon, said the man, who asked to be called Abu Ahmad.
“We are ready. It can come any minute,” he told Reuters during a meeting in a public place, glancing nervously around to see if anyone was watching.
“We will have some surprises,” he said. He pulled his baseball cap down tight on his face and stopped speaking anytime a stranger approached.
A portly man in his mid-30s wearing a striped sports shirt, the man said he fought as part of the 1920 Revolution Brigades insurgent group during the U.S. occupation and was jailed by the Iraqi government from 2007-09.
He gave up fighting in 2010, tired from war and relatively optimistic about the future. But last year, he took up arms again out of anger at a crackdown against Sunni protesters by the Shiite-led government, joining the Military Council, a loose federation of Sunni armed groups and tribal fighters that has since emerged as a full-fledged insurgent umbrella group.While it was not possible to verify all details of his story, Reuters reporters are confident of his identity.
Like many Sunni fighters, Abu Ahmad is not a member of the Al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, and is ambivalent about the group which launched the latest uprising by seizing the main northern city Mosul on June 10 and shortened its name this week to the Islamic State.
Many Sunni armed groups turned against Al-Qaeda during the U.S. occupation but are now rallying to ISIS’ rebellion against the Shiite-led government, though some say they deplore ISIS’ tactics of killing civilians and branding Shiites heretics.
Abu Ahmad said his own group, which includes former military officers, supports some aims of ISIS. “There are some good members of ISIS and some bad,” he said. Of the good ones: “We have the same cause.”
The government says it can protect the capital and has spies who are tracking sleeper agents like Abu Ahmad to round them up.
“We have ample security plans. The sleeper cells are not only in Baghdad but in all other provinces and they are waiting for any chance to carry out attacks,” said Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta, the prime minister’s military spokesman. “We keep those cells under careful and daily scrutiny and follow-up. We have arrested some of them. We have dispatched intelligence members to follow up those cells closely and we have special plans to counter their activities.”
An attempt to take Baghdad, a majority Shiite city with heavily fortified areas, would be a huge task for a rebellion that has so far concentrated on controlling Sunni areas. Many Baghdadis, Sunnis as well as Shiites, say they would fight an insurgency led by militants who want to establish a caliphate.
Although it has been at least six years since warring Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia last held open sway over whole sections of Baghdad, the capital has remained vulnerable to infiltration by ISIS suicide bombers, who strike Shiite and government targets almost daily.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Washington had evidence that ISIS was in the process of configuring its forces for a Baghdad assault using a plan that would include coordinated suicide strikes.
However, other U.S. officials believe ISIS could overextend itself were it to try to take all of Baghdad. They say the more likely scenario would be for fighters to seize a Sunni district and cause disruption with bomb attacks.
ISIS fighters insist that their plan is to take the capital and topple Baghdad’s political elite. “We will receive orders about Zero Hour,” said Abu Saada, an ISIS fighter reached by telephone in Mosul. He said the group had cells in Baghdad and communicated with them by email despite the government’s sporadic blocking of Internet in an effort to disrupt the militants.
For now, it is a cat-and-mouse game in the city. Abu Ahmad said the insurgency had agents in the Iraqi security forces, government ministries and inside the Green Zone. Men like him try to dodge an intensified campaign by the security forces and Shiite militias to round up conspirators.