President Bush suggested on Tuesday that Iraqi Baathists or foreign fighters — or both — could be responsible. On Wednesday, a defense official said an aide to Saddam Hussein was believed to have linked up with the Ansar Al-Islam terror group to coordinate attacks. A high-ranking counterterrorism expert on Thursday said he thinks forensic evidence points to al Qaeda.
The New York Times reported Friday that three senior American officials believe Saddam is actively planning and coordinating some of the attacks. Defense, intelligence and national security officials sought Friday to minimize that possibility, however. Officials have even blamed some violence on the thousands of convicts released from Iraqi jails before the war.
The difference in interpretation suggests uncertainty in senior ranks of the American establishment about the nature of the threat. Commanders don't know if they are fighting a nationally coordinated insurgency or regional foes united only by their desire to drive the Americans from Iraqi soil.
In other developments:
The upsurge of attacks this week, coinciding with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, has killed scores of people, most of them Iraqis who died in a series of vehicle bombings in Baghdad on Monday.
U.S. forces now come under attack an average of 33 times a day, and more soldiers have died in combat since "major combat" ended May 1 than perished before that date.
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday it was not yet clear whether this week's spiraling violence is part of a larger new offensive by insurgents or just a short-term surge.
"It's hard to put it in perspective while it's still going on," Rumsfeld said.
U.S. defense, intelligence and national security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Times some Iraqis have been claiming for months that Saddam is involved. But U.S. officials don't know if the claims are reliable.
There have been few claims of responsibility for any attacks except for a couple of grainy videotapes. The best clues have come from interrogating suspects — difficult to authenticate — or from forensic evidence, such as that which pointed to the use of powerful plastic explosives in vehicle-bombings this week in Baghdad.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Thursday that use of those explosives, which the official said were traced to a manufacturer outside Iraq, pointed to possible al Qaeda involvement.
On Thursday, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told the British Broadcasting Corp., that recent attacks "demonstrated to many Iraqis that they are being used by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups…"
But senior American officers in Iraq have carefully avoided focusing on al Qaeda. They believe some foreign fighters may be involved in the insurgency, along with Saddam loyalists. But the number of foreign fighters remains a mystery.
Asked at the Pentagon on Thursday about fighters in Iraq from other countries, Rumsfeld said between 200 and 300 people believed to be foreigners have been captured, with a "high percentage" from Syria and Lebanon.
However, some commanders have openly expressed skepticism about any influx of foreign fighters. Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division that controls Baghdad, told reporters Sunday that "we have not seen any infusion of foreign fighters."
In Washington, a senior defense official told reporters Wednesday that a link had been found between Saddam supporters and foreign fighters.
The official said on condition of anonymity that two members of the Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Islam told interrogators that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, No. 6 on the list of 55 most wanted Iraqis, was coordinating attacks with foreigners.
However, the link between Ansar al-Islam and foreigners is not altogether clear. Most members of Ansar al-Islam are believed to be Iraqi Kurds, some of whom may have trained in Afghanistan with al Qaeda.