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Spike in suicide attacks: Is Al Qaeda in Iraq coming back?

US intelligence officials do not see a reversal in security gains, but Iraqi political maneuvering could affect decisions to keep US troops in trouble spots.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2009


US and Iraqi officials facing an increase in high-profile suicide bombs do not believe it signals a reversal of a trend of declining attacks. But they say political maneuvering by an Iraqi leadership preparing for national elections is likely to sway decisions that are key to bolstering security.

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In a series of interviews, senior US and Iraqi officials and US intelligence officers say they expect gains made against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to continue to limit the group's ability to destabilize stronger Iraqi security forces and a more confident government.

But the outlook for progress in some of the country's most volatile cities is less certain. Iraqi security officials in Mosul and Diyala Province have consistently said that they need the assistance of US troops past a June 30 deadline for American forces to leave Iraqi cities. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's recent statements that he will not ask US forces to stay in those cities, while domestically popular ahead of elections next year, has sent military planners scrambling.

"In many parts of the country, there is crystal-clear agreement among US and Iraqi military leaders," says a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The higher up you go, the more other factors are entered into the equation." At that level, he says, "campaigning has already begun for the national elections."

Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) adopted by the US and Iraq last November after a year of difficult negotiations, American troops must be out of all Iraqi cities by the end of June, and out of Iraq entirely by the end of 2011.

US and Iraqi officials are now assessing whether US combat troops are needed past June in areas in the north of Iraq where Sunni insurgents took refuge after being pushed out of Baghdad.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US general in Iraq, has warned that in the country's third-biggest city, Mosul, Iraqi security forces need enough time in neighborhoods still being cleared of insurgents to ensure they don't come back.

The strategy of placing American troops closer to the population they are trying to protect was seen as a major factor in the military surge's success in reducing violence.

Maliki's public statements

Most American and Iraqi officials say they believe Mr. Malaki's statements are for public consumption and do not preclude making an exemption to the June deadline in some cities. An exemption would technically be different from an extension, something the prime minister has said he would not authorize.

"Malaki is fully aware of the need for a US presence in those places," says one senior Iraqi official.

A sharp increase in suicide bombings that killed more than 350 Iraqis in April has ignited fears that violence could again spiral beyond Iraqi forces' control, just as US troops are withdrawing from major centers.

While intelligence officers say they don't believe last month's attacks constitute a trend, they worry about unpredictable factors – primarily, the effect of budget cuts on Iraq's still-vulnerable security forces and the future of a paid volunteer force that has been key to reducing violence.