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 US 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 Shia neighbourhoods during US occupation.
The government says it is rounding up members of sleeper cells to help safeguard the capital, and Shia 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.
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He said their goal was to penetrate the US-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, the mainly Sunni Western area that has been a heartland of the insurgency, said he has been working in Baghdad as a labourer 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 Ahmed.
“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.