Al Qaeda fears mount

Al Qaeda fears mount

Deadly attacks in the past few days have heightened fears of a resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq at a time when the US-led programme to integrate former Sunni militants into the security forces is running into trouble.

Iraqi police in this region south of Baghdad – once so notorious for violence it was called the Triangle of Death – fear the combination could erode dramatic security gains made over past months amid the US troop surge.

“The local people are now saying that Al Qaeda is coming back,” Iraqi police commander in Babil province Major General Fadhil Radad told US Major General Rick Lynch during a meeting in Jurf Al Sakhr village.

Lynch was attending the inauguration of a new town hall in this community where Al Qaeda once held sway.

Radad pointed to a sudden increase in activity by Al Qaeda operatives – particularly a series of assassinations of local officials in the past several weeks.

The worry is not limited to the Triangle of Death.

Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters have increasingly targeted Sunnis who have turned against the terror movement.

On Thursday, a suicide bomber struck the funeral of two anti-Al Qaeda Sunnis north of Baghdad, killing 50 mourners.

Two days earlier, suicide bombings in four major cities of northern and central Iraq killed more than 60 people and shattered weeks of calm in Sunni-dominated areas.

A US military spokesman said that regardless of the problems, the overall situation in Iraq has markedly improved over the past year.

“We have said all along that there will be variants in which we will see Al Qaeda and other groups seek to reassert themselves,” he said.

During his visit to Jurf Al Sakhr, Lynch showcased the security improvements achieved in the “Triangle of Death” area.

“We”ve gone from 25 attacks a day to two attacks a day,” said Lynch.

He attributed the success to last year”s surge in the numbers of US troops, along with the creation of the Sons of Iraq programme, which has engaged thousands of local men – many of them former Sunni insurgents – into local village or neighbourhood guards.

More than 100,000 members of such guards groups, also known as Awakening Councils, are now fighting with – not against – US and Iraqi forces. The creation of the groups has marked one of the most significant shifts in the power balance in Iraq since the Sunni insurgency took root in 2004.

But in his talks with Lynch, Radad warned the programme is now in danger of stalling over government inaction. He complained to Lynch that so far, only 2,000 of the 40,000 Sons of Iraq in Babil province have been brought into the police and army.

Meanwhile, the US has tried – with limited success – to persuade the Shi”ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki to bring them into the army and police.

In an Internet speech posted yesterday, Al Qaeda”s number two figure, Ayman Al Zawahiri, mocked the Awakening Councils.

“Weren”t these Awakening (Councils) supposed to hasten the departure of the American forces? Or are these Awakenings in need of someone to defend them and protect them,” Zawahiri said.

At the same time, another pillar of the US strategy – a truce by Shi”ite militiamen loyal to cleric Moqtada Al Sadr – has been weakening.

A sharp upsurge in fighting between government forces and Shi”ite militias, primarily Sadr”s Mahdi Army, has claimed nearly 1,000 lives since March 25.