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New bombings in Iraq steal thunder from top insurgent's arrest

Al Qaeda in Iraq appears to be exploiting instability in Iraq's government

(Page 2 of 2)

AQI tries to undermine Awakening

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The US had made significant inroads against AQI by building and funding a Sunni paramilitary group known as the Sons of Iraq (also referred to as the Awakening). But members of the group – which at one point included more than 100,000 members – have become disgruntled in recent months over the arrests of key leaders and a delay in payment from the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has been in charge of their activities since late last year.

"If you continue arresting, harassing, and shunning Awakening types – many of whom were originally derived from the insurgency – you're really playing with fire," says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and the former deputy director of the State Department's office of Near East intelligence.

Earlier this week, a senior AQI leader called on Awakening members to return to the terrorist organization. Other reports indicate that, amid growing neglect from the Iraqi government, AQI is having increasing success unravelling the community-policing organization.

Additionally, in the face of increased pressure from both the Awakening members and American and Iraqi forces, AQI, which originally behaved more like a militia than a terrorist group, had to go deep underground. It adopted more of a cellular operating structure that has allowed it to continue operations even if top leaders are killed or captured.

"It is a multisegmented hydra that can survive this kind of thing," Mr. White says. "It can survive being beheaded more."

US again caught between Sunni and Shiite

The Maliki government and Iraqi security forces remain predominantly Shiite organizations, providing fertile recruiting ground for AQI, which has played on sectarian tensions to recruit Sunnis.

If the Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni group, were to rejoin AQI or create new militias, American forces could find themselves in a difficult position.

"The Sunni Arab population that AQI depends on for support increasingly has the feeling that we [the US] are walking away from them," says Patrick Lang, a Middle East expert and former US Army officer. "There's this feeling that the Maliki government is so Shiite that it intends to not treat the Sunni Arabs very well, and the United States is not showing any inclination to continue to support [the Sunnis]."

Should the US take up arms against former Awakening members, it could create the perception that American forces had sided with the Shiites, some analysts warn. With strained relations between Iraq's three major ethnic groups – the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds – and no apparent road to a unity government, deeper conflict could still be brewing in the restive nation.

The US had the mistaken "belief that everybody would just decide to play nice in the school yard without their interests being served," says Mr. Lang. "We've made these mistake over and over again in Iraq."