As US withdraws, will Al Qaeda in Iraq find new openings?
The Sunni insurgent group may strike back, but Iraq experts say it's unlikely they will ever achieve the level of power they once wielded.
Three months before Amin al-Qaraghouli walked into a meeting of tribal sheikhs here and blew himself up, killing 23 people, he was in jail for planting roadside bombs. He was freed after local elders backed his claim that he had abandoned his violent past.Skip to next paragraph
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The Jan. 3 attack in this town of dirt roads and mud-brick buildings 25 miles southwest of Baghdad was the worst suicide bombing in months and a deadly reminder that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) remains within striking distance.
With American forces largely gone from Yusufiyah and pulling out of cities across the country, security is being left to the Iraqi Army, police, and their paramilitary allies in the Sons of Iraq (SOI). But experts and many Iraqis worry that in the absence of US soldiers AQI may attempt to resurface and once again carry out mass-casualty attacks.
"There are still some tribes who are trying to hide Al Qaeda in Iraq members," says Abu Hanian al-Qaraghouli, a local SOI deputy.
But while the apparent revenge attack on the Qaraghouli tribe, carried out by their own members for the group's cooperation with the Americans in the fight against Sunni insurgents, has certainly rattled Yusufiyah, many residents remain optimistic that the situation will continue to improve and that AQI will not gain the same foothold it once had.
"There have been tribal reconciliations here and the Iraqi Army controls this area. Security is strong," says street vender Sadah Najeed.
During the peak of the insurgency almost a year and a half ago, residents say this was a ghost town lined with shuttered storefronts. It wasn't uncommon for insurgents to leave bodies in one of the town's main traffic circles. Today it's bustling. Not only are stores open and residents out, but a group of Shiite pilgrims marched through the main street celebrating Ashura, the Shiite religious holiday, that would have been sure to draw attacks from Sunni insurgents just two or three years ago.
"Of course we still have Al Qaeda and criminals, but much less than we used to," says an Iraqi Army officer in Yusufiyah, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "Given the size of the Iraqi Army, Al Qaeda cannot make a comeback here."
While insurgents such as AQI may attempt to use the American withdrawal as an opportunity to reassert themselves, experts say it's unlikely that such organizations will ever achieve the level of power they once wielded here.
If violence does return in Iraq when the US leaves it is likely to look different, if for no other reason than because many of the key players from the insurgency were killed or captured during the surge, says Tarak Barkawi, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University who specializes in war and insurgencies.