As US withdraws, will Al Qaeda in Iraq find new openings?

The Sunni insurgent group may strike back, but Iraq experts say it's unlikely they will ever achieve the level of power they once wielded.

Tom A. Peter
Yusufiyah: Shiite pilgrims marched through Yusufiyah, 25 miles southwest of Baghdad, on Saturday.

Three months before Amin al-Qaraghouli walked into a meeting of tribal sheikhs here and blew himself up, killing 23 people, he was in jail for planting roadside bombs. He was freed after local elders backed his claim that he had abandoned his violent past.

The Jan. 3 attack in this town of dirt roads and mud-brick buildings 25 miles southwest of Baghdad was the worst suicide bombing in months and a deadly reminder that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) remains within striking distance.

With American forces largely gone from Yusufiyah and pulling out of cities across the country, security is being left to the Iraqi Army, police, and their paramilitary allies in the Sons of Iraq (SOI). But experts and many Iraqis worry that in the absence of US soldiers AQI may attempt to resurface and once again carry out mass-casualty attacks.

"There are still some tribes who are trying to hide Al Qaeda in Iraq members," says Abu Hanian al-Qaraghouli, a local SOI deputy.

But while the apparent revenge attack on the Qaraghouli tribe, carried out by their own members for the group's cooperation with the Americans in the fight against Sunni insurgents, has certainly rattled Yusufiyah, many residents remain optimistic that the situation will continue to improve and that AQI will not gain the same foothold it once had.

"There have been tribal reconciliations here and the Iraqi Army controls this area. Security is strong," says street vender Sadah Najeed.

During the peak of the insurgency almost a year and a half ago, residents say this was a ghost town lined with shuttered storefronts. It wasn't uncommon for insurgents to leave bodies in one of the town's main traffic circles. Today it's bustling. Not only are stores open and residents out, but a group of Shiite pilgrims marched through the main street celebrating Ashura, the Shiite religious holiday, that would have been sure to draw attacks from Sunni insurgents just two or three years ago.

"Of course we still have Al Qaeda and criminals, but much less than we used to," says an Iraqi Army officer in Yusufiyah, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "Given the size of the Iraqi Army, Al Qaeda cannot make a comeback here."

While insurgents such as AQI may attempt to use the American withdrawal as an opportunity to reassert themselves, experts say it's unlikely that such organizations will ever achieve the level of power they once wielded here.

If violence does return in Iraq when the US leaves it is likely to look different, if for no other reason than because many of the key players from the insurgency were killed or captured during the surge, says Tarak Barkawi, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University who specializes in war and insurgencies.

"The insurgency, as it faced [Coalition Forces], is not around anymore. It's a different array of political forces and military forces than existed prior to the surge," he says. "The insurgency in all its different locations was united by this common enemy, which is us. We're not going to serve as that for much longer."

Already, US troops are moving to the sidelines, especially following the status of forces agreement that calls for all US troops to be out of cities by July 2009 and out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

The impending departure of US troops marks a shift that will force Iraqis to face many unresolved internal issues that could escalate.

"The political divide separating the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds remains as wide as it's ever been," says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. "The American presence has postponed the inevitable and the inevitable is that the Iraqi rulers must face the challenge of transforming the sectarian-based government into a national unity government."

With the political blocs in Iraq still heavily linked to the country's ethnic groups, Dr. Gerges says there are still a number of fault lines in Iraq that could bring about violent conflict.

For example, the provincial elections that will take place at the end of this month were nearly delayed over a dispute this fall between the Iraqi government and the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north about who controls oil-rich Kirkuk. Though both sides are examining the issue, it remains unsettled.

Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for the government of Iraq, contends that "the presence of US troops is not connected with reconciliation issues." While he does acknowledge tension between sectarian leaning political blocs that must be resolved, he says that this strife does not trickle down to everyday Iraqis who are now much less motivated by sectarian issues than they were just two years ago.

Tribes have also acquired a larger role. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established tribal councils in select areas throughout the country and many of the groups are seeking seats in the upcoming provincial elections.

While the growth of tribal influence may provide a counterbalance to sectarian politics, it could also lead to a rise in violent civil disputes.

The Yusufiyah bombing reveals frustrations within the local SOI group, the country's community policing program that arose from the Awakening Movement.

From now on, Mr. Qaraghouli, the deputy, says if the SOI know someone is guilty of murder they will skip the court and execute the alleged killer themselves. He admits this type of vigilante justice could create enduring bloodshed.

"We will risk hate and fighting forever. It will affect the future of our sons," he says, undeterred.

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