A series of bombings this week in Sunni areas of Iraq – in some cases targeting the Awakening Councils, or sahwas, that have resisted the spread of militant Islamist extremism – is raising concerns that Al Qaeda in Iraq may be regrouping following recent defeats.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber struck a funeral for two brothers – killed the day before –who had joined the Awakening Council in Albu Mohammed, 90 miles north of Baghdad. The blast killed at least 50 mourners, many of them thought to be sympathizers of anti-Al Qaeda groups.
On Tuesday in Ramadi, Anbar Province's capital, a man walked into a restaurant, screamed "God is Great," and blew himself up, killing at least 10 people. On the same day, a car bomb in Baquba, capital of Diyala Province, killed 50.
New violence in Sunni areas follows a period of calm that had allowed US and Iraqi officials to venture that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups were on the run. It also comes as the US has trained its sights on the Shiite militias threatening the Iraqi government's authority.
In December, Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Kareem Khalaf had said that 75 percent of Al Qaeda in Iraq's safehouses and hideouts had been eliminated, leading to an 80 percent reduction in attacks by the group over six months.
At the same time, in his year-end briefing with reporters in Baghdad, Gen. David Petraeus had said that, although Al Qaeda remained the single biggest threat to security in Iraq, the group was losing foreign sponsors and getting fewer of its fighters into Iraq. "Some of what we are told is that they are really struggling to buy gas for their vehicles," said General Petraeus.
By the time of his congressional testimony earlier this month, Petraeus had replaced Al Qaeda with Shiite militias as the greatest threat to security and progress in the country.
But even in December Petraeus had warned that gains against Al Qaeda could be reversed, and this week US officials said the string of attacks was anticipated. "We have said all along that there will be variants in which we will see Al Qaeda and other groups seek to reassert themselves," said US military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner.
The bombings this week follow an audio statement from the Sunni extremist umbrella organization the Islamic State of Iraq, which many analysts say was founded by Al Qaeda in Iraq. It urged Iraqis to turn against the Awakening Councils, which the US now calls "Sons of Iraq."
Iraqi analysts said it should surprise no one that Al Qaeda in Iraq would try to take advantage of the Americans' focus on the Shiite militias. But some also warned against blaming Al Qaeda alone for this week's bombings.
"Al Qaeda [in Iraq] is weakened now, but they are not finished," says Thafer al-Ani, a member of the Iraq parliament from the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front. "Their numbers became less, but they still have the capability to destabilize the security situation. They have the tactics, the suicide people," he adds, "and they know to exploit the absence of national reconciliation in the hopes of turning the population back towards them."
Mr. Ani says no one viewing this week's surge in violence in Sunni areas should overlook Iran's interests in sowing discord. He said an Iraqi intelligence report last year warned that Iran may orchestrate attacks on the US-allied, anti-Al Qaeda groups.
"Iran has an interest in preventing a political and security balance. Their aim has always been to target the Sunni people, and the Awakening people are Sunnis," Ani says.