An Iraqi man who officials say planned an attack on a Shiite shrine last February that pushed sectarian fighting to its highest pitch since the war began has been captured. He was the second in command of Al Qaeda in Iraq, say Iraqi officials.
Hamid Juma Faris al-Saeedi, described as a former member of Saddam Hussein's feared domestic intelligence service was arrested a few days ago, north of Baqubah. In June, the founder of the Iraq-based group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by a US airstrike in Baqubah.
National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said on Sunday the arrest was a major blow for the group. "I can say Al Qaeda in Iraq is severely wounded,'' he told reporters.
The Iraqi government said information obtained from Mr. Saeedi's arrest has led them to a number of other Al Qaeda-linked insurgent cells. In a statement on Monday, the government said it has since killed 14 alleged members of the group, arrested a further 98 alleged Al Qaeda operatives, and taken in an additional 95 people described as suspects.
It's too soon to know precisely what impact the arrest of Saeedi will have on the war in Iraq. The three months after Mr. Zarqawi's killing were the most violent on record for Iraq, largely because of the proliferation of sectarian death squads.
"Even if this guy was the No. 2 in Al Qaeda, take the example of Zarqawi,'' says Evan Kohlmann, a counterterrorism consultant and author who tracks the propaganda and operations of jihad groups in Iraq. "We killed the No. 1 guy, and it was a great victory, but it did nothing to stop the violence in Iraq."
Al Qaeda is just one of many Iraqi insurgent groups. US and Iraqi officials say insurgent operations are largely decentralized, with nothing approaching unified command and control. And in the past two years, the ideological underpinnings of Al Qaeda have spread among Sunni Arab insurgent groups, which means that its methods and goals are likely to survive the demise of leaders within the organizations nucleus.
That's largely due to the fact that the meaning of "Al Qaeda" has shifted. What was once a specific terrorist group, led by Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, has evolved into a school of thought and operations.
On Saturday, Mr. Zawahiri made a brief appearance on a 48-minute Al Qaeda video which seemed aimed at softening the group's terrorist image. Most of the tape featured Adam Yehiye Gadahn, a 28-year-old American, who urged US soldiers to switch sides in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and called on Americans to convert to Islam.
Some Muslim religious figures criticized Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying the group violated directives in the Koran that require potential victims be warned that conversion to Islam could save them.
Terrorist attacks in line with the traditional goals of Al Qaeda have been carried out in cities like Amman, London, and Madrid with little evidence of direct involvement for the organization's traditional core of operatives, now believed to be holed up in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
That international evolution has been mirrored in Iraq as well. Hundreds of Al Qaeda in Iraq members have been captured and killed there in recent years, while suicide tactics and indiscriminate attacks on civilians have proliferated. The latest example was the murder of 14 South Asian Shiites traveling to a shrine in southern Iraq last Friday. They were killed by gunmen presumed to be Sunni Arab jihadis.
To be sure, Al Qaeda in Iraq has been linked to some of the most devastating attacks inside Iraq, none more damaging perhaps than the Feb. 22 bombings of the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra. That bombing, which killed few, indirectly led to the deaths of thousands in the weeks and months afterwards, as local Sunni and Shiite militias participated in reprisal killings.
Mr. Rubaie said that Saeedi was the direct supervisor of Haitham al-Badri, the man who Iraqi officials say led the attack on the shrine. .
Mr. Kohlmann says he doubts the capture of Saeedi – an operative he said he'd never heard of before – is likely to have much impact on Iraq's fighting. "The seeds that Zarqawi planted in Iraq have grown and sprouted their own local, sectarian extremists,'' he says. "In 2004, the only insurgent group that was promoting sectarian violence was Al Qaeda – the rest were focused on the occupation. Now, if you read their propaganda, they're all focused on the [Shiite militias such as] Mahdi Army and Badr [Brigade]. Al Qaeda was trying to provoke a cycle of sectarian revenge, and after Askariyah they got what they'd been working for."
Al Qaeda's ideology is virulently anti-Shiite – viewing non-Sunni Muslims as apostates.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was also directly involved in suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, last November. On Monday, the Associated Press reported the first terrorist attack in the country since then – the shooting death of a British man, and the wounding of five other foreigners and a Jordanian policeman at a tourist site. Early wire reports said the assailant was an Iraqi. "This operation is considered a terrorist act unless the man is found to be deranged," said Jordan's Interior Minister Eid al-Fayez.