There is a confusing portrait emerging from Iraq regarding al-Qaeda’s position inside the country. Recent reports present contradictory views on the level of al-Qaeda support, success and long-term prospects. One picture depicts continuous violent attacks, the defiance of key al-Qaeda-affiliated Iraqi insurgent groups and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi still at large conducting a public relations campaign. The other picture portrays al-Qaeda losing high-level operatives as a result of arrests by the increasingly competent Iraqi security services, renunciation of support from Sunni Arab tribes and indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups ignoring al-Qaeda’s advice and entering into secret talks with Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition officials. Which is the more accurate picture?
The first scenario is certainly compelling. Although the Iraqi security services have improved to a degree, they have clearly not improved enough to significantly disrupt insurgent operations. Deadly attacks against the Iraqi police by al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents continue, disrupting training, recruitment and the morale of the incipient police force. Every day there are reports of bombings and assassinations of Iraqi police and recruits. In the last week alone, there were three reports of targeted bombings and assassinations of police officers in the Baghdad area (al-Sharqiyah, May 17-20).
Key Iraqi insurgent groups are also still refusing to enter into talks with the Iraqi government and/or coalition officials despite urging by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Iraqi officials like Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Five armed groups—the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, al-Rashidin Army, the Islamic Movement of the Iraqi Mujahideen, the Leagues of the People of Iraq and al-Tamkin Brigades—released a joint statement stressing that the time was not right for talks and that the United States was trying to use the proposed talks as a pretext to escape their political and military “predicament” (al-Jazeera, May 16).
Furthermore, chaos has erupted in Basra, a city that Iraqi and U.S. officials counted on to remain stable while they dealt with the more troublesome Sunni-dominated central provinces where al-Qaeda operates. Additionally, there are also reports that al-Zarqawi is now operating out of southern Iraq. High level Iraqi defense department officials revealed that al-Zarqawi was reported to have been staying in the al-Yusufiyah area south of Baghdad. Confessions extracted out of captured al-Qaeda officials reveal that al-Zarqawi may be based around the Baghdad-al-Najaf- Karbala road (al-Dustur, May 17).
All this indicates that al-Qaeda in Iraq is alive and well. The undersecretary in the Iraqi Interior Ministry for Intelligence, however, reported that Iraqi security forces are making accelerated progress in narrowing down the whereabouts of al-Zarqawi through a joint U.S.-Iraqi operations center. The Iraqi government also released a newly discovered al-Qaeda document that indicates how al-Qaeda is suffering from a decline in capabilities and has had difficulty recruiting new members (al-Arabiya, May 10).
It is possible that the document was planted by al-Qaeda to imply weakness. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda’s leadership structure has suffered setbacks. For instance, yet another senior al-Zarqawi aide was recently arrested. Salah Husayn Abd-al-Razzaq, in possession of al-Qaeda documents and electronics equipment, was arrested on May 15 in Ramadi. Umar Ahmad Salih (also known as Abu Jibril), a Tawhid and Jihad leader, was also arrested and possessed weapons and documents (Kuwait News Agency, May 15). Tawhid and Jihad is blamed for many of the suicide bombings inside Iraq.
Al-Qaeda military setbacks, arrests of senior operatives and troubles in recruitment have made indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups affiliated with al-Qaeda less confident in the organization’s ability to reach their objective of upsetting the political process and driving coalition troops out of Iraq. Therefore, they are more willing to enter into talks with coalition officials to reach some of their immediate objectives and are now more willing to enter the government-sanctioned process to influence the political debate in their favor. Ibrahim al-Shammari, the spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, for instance, is rethinking his position on talks with coalition officials. Until quite recently, he had refused talks with Iraqi government officials and did not recommend talks with U.S. officials (Terrorism Focus, May 9). In a recent interview with al-Jazeera television, however, al-Shammari responded to Vice President al-Hashemi’s call for talks by stating, “We are not opposed to direct negotiations with the Americans or the British, but we seek credible negotiations that are both official and productive” (al-Jazeera, May 15).
With so many news reports providing contradictory impressions of al-Qaeda’s situation inside Iraq, which is the more accurate picture? Both appear to be true. Coalition officials and al-Qaeda operatives want to create the perception that supports their respective positions, but a definitive assessment on the military and ideological struggle between the two enemies remains elusive. Al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda have experienced setbacks, but they are still a serious force inside Iraq. They will remain a serious force until Iraqi security forces consolidate and a political solution is reached in Baghdad that will diminish sympathy for Iraq’s various insurgent groups.