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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.

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"If the level of violence today is what it is, it's fine," says one intelligence officer. "But when you take the Sons of Iraq off the street ... and you take us out of the mix, and now there's a void there.... What is the impact going to be of the budget, of getting these legacy issues resolved, of the elections? There are a lot of uncertainties here."

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The "legacy issues" include long-delayed laws that would govern powersharing and oil revenue as well as the status of the city of Kirkuk and other territories claimed by both Arabs and Kurds.

Watching for patterns of attacks

Iraqis have been unsettled by last month's suicide bombs, which killed the largest number of people since September, most of them civilians. The targets included a major Shiite shrine in Baghdad and seemed aimed at reigniting sectarian fighting that dragged Iraq into civil war two years ago.

But the intelligence community is watching for patterns in attacks – particularly the length of time it takes between planning and executing bombings. Intelligence officials say AQI's capacity to launch frequent, effective, and complex attacks has diminished as the US and Iraq have dismantled key parts of its network.

"I still think the trend [in attacks] continues to go down as we approach a key couple of dates: the deadline to be out of the cities, and then the elections," says one of the intelligence officers, who asked to remain anonymous as a matter of policy on intelligence issues.

He says he would be concerned if he saw a renewed ability to quickly execute sophisticated attacks: "It's more if you start seeing that cycle of violence start to become more compact."

"It's the scope and character of the violence, the effect of the violence, and the quality of that violence and where that violence occurs," rather than the number of attacks, says one of the intelligence officers.

"The bigger issue is the environment for their operations, their freedom of movement, their recruiting," this officer says. "At the same time you have a growth in capacity of governance at the local, provincial, and national level, and the Iraqi Security Forces are slowly developing."

Despite that, retaliatory attacks from either Shiite extremists or Iranian-backed groups could set the cycle in motion again.

"What they're really worried about is that Al Qaeda is really focusing on attacks that can ignite sectarian tensions," says a senior State Department official. "The critical factor is: Are the AQI attacks succeeding in producing follow-on violence? You've seen the small rise in attacks and a big spike in civilian casualties, but you haven't seen a spike in sectarian violence."

'Acceptable' level of violence

For officials who have long talked about "an acceptable level of violence" that Iraqi forces can handle and the Iraqi public will tolerate, this might be close to it.

"You're still going to get high-profile attacks, whether it's 10 a month, or 12 or 15. You're still going to get those, but [they will be] less effective," says one of the intelligence officers.

The less predictable question remains whether, with the US pullout and the confluence of Iraqi budget problems and Iraqi politics, Iraqi security forces a year from now will be capable of curbing those attacks on their own.

"That's a tough call to make," says one intelligence officer, saying he personally believes they will within the next year. "We've all got a lot to do frankly to just watch the situation and continue to gauge some of the wild cards and the capability."