Al-Qaeda in Iraq Down – But Not Out

Extremist group could exploit chaos resulting from a US troop withdrawal to mount a comeback.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq Down – But Not Out

Extremist group could exploit chaos resulting from a US troop withdrawal to mount a comeback.

Al-Qaeda suicide bombings and other reprisals against Sunni tribal leaders and their followers who have aligned themselves with United States and Iraqi government forces could be the last-ditch efforts of an increasingly isolated and diminished organisation, say experts.

But some caution that it is too soon to write off al-Qaeda in Iraq, AQI, given the continued political divisions between opponents and supporters of the foreign troop presence, and between Shia and Sunni Arab forces.

In an April 2007 speech, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, said AQI was “probably public enemy number one” in the country.

That is no longer the case, in large part because the group’s increasingly violent and indiscriminate attacks on tribal chiefs and civilians in Sunni areas, which had hitherto harboured or tolerated it, pushed local leaders to begin working with US troops, according to Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant.

“In the beginning, it was easy for AQI to blend into the insurgency because at that point everyone had a fairly revolutionary feeling about the American occupation,” said Kohlmann. “But once AQI tried to gain power and dominance it started to enforce its revolutionary agenda on Iraqi citizens.”

The sea-change came in 2006, as Sunni tribes largely rejected the sudden imposition of Islamic fundamentalist edicts, which included a ban on smoking and most kinds of music, and forcing local teenage girls to marry foreign fighters as a way of tying AQI into Iraqi Sunni communities.

Kohlmann explained that tensions reached boiling point when AQI turned the focus of its campaign of violence against Sunni tribal chiefs who rejected the group’s draconian decrees.

“That’s when you start seeing conflict,” he said. “It’s not just a question of people disagreeing with the agenda – if you don’t go along with it then you are an enemy.”

Although political parties representing Sunni Arabs were present in government, the shift in grassroots allegiances came in 2006 with the emergence of the Sahawat al-Anbar or Anbar Awakening Council, as a coalition of tribal heads and their followers in the western province of Anbar, which was at the heart of the resistance by Islamist and national forces to the US military presence, and which had seen fierce fighting since 2003.

After his father and three brothers were killed by AQI insurgents in September 2006, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, a tribal leader in Anbar, approached US military officials about joining forces. This led to the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council, in which thousands of Sunnis worked with American forces to drive AQI out of the province.

The movement quickly spread beyond Anbar, with councils set up in AQI strongholds in Baghdad and finally north to Mosul. Analysts believe some of its members were formerly with the insurgent forces fighting the Americans.

US military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel. Rudolph Burwell said in April 2008 that more than 95,000 people, predominantly Sunnis, had joined the “anti-al-Qaeda movement”.

This significantly weakened AQI’s ability to move around freely and choose its battles.

“In the beginning, AQI forces confronted American forces in Baghdad, Anbar and elsewhere, but following the Awakening Councils, they have basically avoided the fight with US troops because they know they will be crushed,” said Joost Hiltermann, deputy programme director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East Project in Istanbul.

With less scope for action, and angered by what it saw as Sunni Arab treachery, AQI turned instead to attacking Sunnis who cooperated with the US. The group claimed responsibility for a car bomb that killed Abu Risha outside his home in Ramadi in September 2007. Similar attacks followed, but the Awakening Councils have remained aligned with the US and Iraqi forces and sought a larger role in the Baghdad government.

“They can push a motorcycle bomb and take out a Sahwa [Awakening] leader but they aren’t going to kill the Sahwa,” said Farook Ahmed, research analyst at the US-based Institute for the Study of War. “They can’t stop the momentum with one bombing. Even if they are still killing, the Sahwa is still there.”

Once estimated at roughly 12,000 members, US military officials contend that fewer than 1,200 AQI fighters remain, and Ahmed said the resolve shown by its new Sahwa opponents has made it more difficult for the group to draw new recruits.

“In the beginning, AQI was about 90 per cent locally recruited and ten per cent foreign fighters but the number of locals has fallen substantially,” he said. “Foreign fighters used to provide the financing but there are fewer and fewer recruits who are willing to pay all of the money necessary to come to Iraq when there are so many significant setbacks.”

At this point, said Ahmed, “the AQI network itself is extremely degraded, if not defeated, and I don’t think they’re going to be coming back any time soon unless there’s some sort of horrible mismanagement by the Iraqi government”.

Experts remain divided about the potential impact the much-discussed American troop withdrawal – and especially its timing – would have on the future of AQI.

Some see a danger in the US troops leaving before stability has been achieved, speculating that Sunni forces might exploit any ensuing chaos to battle the Shia-led government.

“If Americans leave too soon, then the Sunni Awakening Councils may well go back to fighting with the government, which they see as an Iranian proxy,” said Hiltermann.

Others, however, suggest that the departure of American troops could help secure the country.

“If the Iraqi government is able to stabilise itself, and if the provincial election this year and the national election next year bring more Sunnis into the [political] fold, it’s possible that a US troop withdrawal would have a beneficial impact,” said Kohlmann. “Even if they don’t like AQI, a lot of people don’t want US troops to stay there, and this would show the government’s ability to achieve what it has promised and be self-sufficient.”

AQI has been weakened, but analysts caution that this progress could be reversible, if a US departure leads to further chaos.

“The Sunni-Shia rift has not been healed. It has been somewhat muted by the troop surge and other events,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “AQI could still be potentially useful to the Sunnis when they eventually push for more power.”

But in the event of Sunnis receiving a greater voice in political and security affairs and buying into the political process, analysts note that there is little suicide bombs can do to reverse the progress.

“As soon as you see Shia forces concede to work with the moderate Sunni forces, it doesn’t matter what AQI does because they are finished,” said Kohlmann.

Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.

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