US military intelligence officials are concerned that al Qaeda in Iraq has established a deadly bombing cell in the Baghdad region, after two major suicide attacks over the past three days killed more than 50 Iraqis. The attacks do not indicate a resurgent al Qaeda insurgency, however, but a return to its terror roots.
Today’s attack in the Abu Ghraib region on the western outskirts of Baghdad has sparked fears that a new terror campaign is underway in the nation’s capital. A suicide bomber killed 28 Iraqis, including tribal leaders, military officers, policemen, and journalists, as they toured a market in Abu Ghraib after attending a tribal meeting. Another 28 Iraqis were reported wounded.
A bombing two days earlier at a police training academy in central Baghdad killed 28 recruits and wounded more than 60 Iraqis. The suicide bomber rode a motorbike into a crowd of police recruits gathering outside the academy and detonated his vest and explosives attached to the bike.
A car bomb attack on March 5 at a market in the city of Hillah just 60 miles south of Baghdad killed 13 Iraqis and wounded another 57 civilians.
The bombings demonstrate that al Qaeda in Iraq can still recruit volunteers, build deadly bombs, gather intelligence and scout targets, and employ the attackers effectively in Baghdad, a US military intelligence officer told The Long War Journal.
“AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] knew when and where to strike for maximum effect,” the officer, who wished to remain anonymous, observed. “Today’s attack in particular shows they still have good intelligence. We’ve had good success against AQI suicide and IED [improvised explosive device] cells in Baghdad and the surrounding areas, but we appear to have some new cells that need to be taken down.”
But the attacks in the Baghdad region over the past three months have occurred over a short period of time, the official noted. A spate of attacks took place in Baghdad, Karbala, and Hillah in mid-February during the religious holiday of Arbaeen. More than 60 Iraqis, mostly Shia pilgrims, were killed in attacks on Feb. 11, 12, and 13. Prior to the February attacks, bombings on Jan. 2 and 4 during the Shia religious festival of Ashura killed killed more than 60 Iraqis and wounded more than 100.
The current attacks in the Baghdad region, while troubling, also show the limitation of al Qaeda’s network in the Baghdad region. “Mass-casualty attacks used to occur on a regular basis between 2005 through 2007 and were aimed at the Shia, government forces, infrastructure, you name it,” the intelligence officer said. “Now we are seeing more directed attacks, as AQI cannot sustain the attack levels as they did in the past. Clearly the goal is to disrupt reconciliation and reignite the sectarian conflict.”
The Iraqi security forces rejected the idea that al Qaeda has returned in force. “We can’t consider that al-Qaeda has returned and got back its power because of the past two days’ explosions,” General Abdul Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior told Voices of Iraq on March 6. Khalaf said al Qaeda is acting “randomly” in its pattern of attacks.
While Khalaf dismissed the idea of an al Qaeda resurgence in the Baghdad region, security forces began to deploy in strength in Anbar province along the Syrian border. Units from the “emergency police” have deployed in the Al Qaim region to help seal the border and prevent al Qaeda foreign fighters from entering Iraq.
While US military intelligence sees a more defined pattern in al Qaeda’s attacks, it does not see al Qaeda gaining control of wide swaths of ground as it had between 2006 and 2007.
“Aside from some pockets in northern Ninewa and Diyala provinces, AQI and allied Islamist groups like Ansar al Sunnah no longer control territory,” the US intelligence official said. “AQI is no longer a viable insurgent force, it has reverted to a terrorist group capable of conducting bombings but unable to exert real influence as it had prior to the 2007 campaign, better known as the ‘surge,'” the officer said.
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