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Why Should Americans "Fear" A Renewel Of Uber-Sunni Violence Against Shi'a In Iraq?

From The New York Times:

Nov. 6, 2011

Leaving Iraq, U.S. Fears New Surge of Qaeda Terror

BAGHDAD — As the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Iraq by year’s end, senior American and Iraqi officials are expressing growing concern that Al Qaeda’s offshoot here, which just a few years ago waged a debilitating insurgency that plunged the country into a civil war, is poised for a deadly resurgence.

Qaeda allies in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen are seeking to assert more influence after the death of Osama bin Laden and the diminished role of Al Qaeda’s remaining top leadership in Pakistan. For its part, Al Qaeda in Iraq is striving to rebound from major defeats inflicted by Iraqi tribal groups and American troops in 2007, as well as the deaths of its two leaders in 2010.

Although the organization is certainly weaker than it was at its peak five years ago and is unlikely to regain its prior strength, American and Iraqi analysts said the Qaeda franchise is shifting its tactics and strategies — like attacking Iraqi security forces in small squads — to exploit gaps left by the departing American troops and to try to reignite sectarian violence in the country.

The group, which is also known as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has shown surprising resilience even as its traditional supply lines of foreign fighters through Syria have been disrupted by the turmoil in that country, American intelligence officials say. It conducts a little more than 30 attacks a week, carries out a large-scale strike every four to six weeks, and has expanded its efforts to recruit Iraqis, leading to a significant increase in the number of Iraqi-born suicide bombers.

“I cringe whenever anybody makes a pronouncement that Al Qaeda is on its last legs,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the American military’s top spokesman in Iraq. “I think one day we are going to look around and say it’s been a long time since we have heard from Al Qaeda, and maybe then we can say it is on its last legs.”

The Qaeda affiliate’s nascent resurgence has helped fuel a debate between some Pentagon officials on one side, who are seeking a way to permit small numbers of American military trainers and Special Operations forces to operate in Iraq, and some White House officials on the other, who are eager to close the final chapter on a divisive eight-year war that cost the lives of more than 4,400 troops.

Iraqi analysts express fears that ties between Al Qaeda and members of the former ruling Baath Party may be re-forming. “The government is afraid from an alliance between Qaeda and Baath precisely in this time, after the American withdrawal from Iraq,” said Ehssan al-Shemari, a political science professor at Baghdad University. “The security issue is the biggest challenge for the government in the next stage.”

According to General Buchanan, there are 800 to 1,000 people in Al Qaeda’s Iraq network, “from terrorists involved in operations to media to finance to fighters.” A document released by the military in July 2010 said Al Qaeda had about 200 “hard core” fighters in Iraq. The weak Iraqi economy is providing a large pool of young and vulnerable recruits, analysts say.

A Defense Department official familiar with the Qaeda affiliate said that the group’s leaders and foot soldiers are Sunni Arabs from central, western and northern Iraq. While some may have been affiliated with the Baath Party in Saddam Hussein’s government, analysts say, they were not involved at high levels of the government or military. Foreigners make up only a small percentage of the organization’s membership base.

Over the summer, the Qaeda branch in Iraq tried to ignite sectarian bloodletting with a series of coordinated attacks across the country and the execution of 22 Shiite pilgrims from the city of Karbala who were traveling through Anbar Province, an area once controlled by Al Qaeda.

In the days after the pilgrims were killed, security forces for the local government in Karbala conducted raids in Anbar, arrested several people and took them back to Karbala. The raids infuriated local leaders in Anbar, who threatened to respond with violence. But the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki frantically intervened. The acting defense secretary traveled to Anbar to meet with local leaders, and ultimately one of the local leaders threatened a lawsuit, a once unthinkable way of resolving a dispute in Iraq.

The Maliki government’s ability to tamp down the tensions encouraged many Iraqi and American officials that the Iraqis would be able to defuse sectarian tensions without the Americans looking over their shoulders.

The raids underscored the group’s shifting tactics. The Qaeda affiliate here “has eschewed efforts to control territory and impose governance — initiatives that left it extremely vulnerable to counterinsurgency techniques — and adopted a more traditional terrorist model built on an underground organization and occasional large-scale attacks,” according to a study in August by Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

Although the United States is withdrawing all but a handful of its remaining 33,000 troops, leaving a few to guard the American Embassy, both governments are discussing a continuing military partnership. Among the main American goals is for the Iraqi government to approve a contingent of American Special Forces that would train and assist Iraqi security forces, according to two American officials

The White House announced Friday that President Obama will meet with Mr. Maliki on Dec. 12 to discuss the continuing “strategic partnership” between the United States and Iraq.

Senior American officials say that intelligence sharing between American and Iraqi forces, which officials from both countries credit with reducing the number of attacks by half over the past two years, will be significantly diminished after the troops leave.

The officials are particularly concerned about the nighttime abilities of the Iraqi special forces, who relied on the Americans for intelligence on the location of insurgents, helicopter transportation and other counterterrorism missions at night.

“It won’t be as clean as when we were helping them do it,” said an American official who was briefed on Middle Eastern militaries. “You will probably have raids go wrong, wrong house, wrong target. It is not like Al Qaeda will have a free hand to do whatever it wants. But the Iraqis will do things that we would have advised them not to do,” and their ability to target insurgents will be reduced, the official said.

As the support from the American military is waning, the State Department, which will have a big presence in Iraq in years to come, is increasing its efforts to help the Iraqis target Al Qaeda.

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton designated the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, as a special global terrorist and posted a $10 million reward for information on his whereabouts. Few Iraqis had heard of Mr. Badri, but he was among the first terrorists to eulogize Osama bin Laden after he was killed in May, and he pledged to conduct 100 attacks in Iraq to avenge Bin Laden’s death. Mr. Badri, also known as Abu Dua, has kept a low profile since assuming control of the group after raids last April killed the organization’s previous two leaders.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has focused its attacks on Iraqi security forces, but senior American officials have also expressed fears that the group may export its violence. In May, two Iraqi refugees living in Bowling Green, Ky., were charged with trying to send sniper rifles, Stinger missiles and money to the Qaeda affiliate in their home country. Neither of the men, Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, was charged with plotting attacks within the United States. A federal sting operation prevented the weapons and money from going to Iraq.

The new director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew G. Olsen, warned in testimony to Congress last month that Al Qaeda in Iraq was increasingly likely to attempt attacks outside the country. He cited a video the group released in January calling on individuals to attack students and infrastructure in the West.


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