In what Iraqi authorities say could be the biggest blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) since its former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a 2006, a military spokesman announced Thursday that Iraqi security forces had arrested the group's current leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. [Editor's note: The original version did not specify the nationality of the security forces.]
The news was a morale boost in Iraq, which has seen increased violence in recent weeks, including two bombings Thursday that killed dozens.
But even if Mr. Baghdadi was captured, Iraq's recent uptick in violence is not likely to abate soon, experts say. The government remains divided and the country's sectarian fault lines are easily exploitable.
"Far from becoming a functioning democracy, far becoming a stable state, far from winning the war in Iraq, Iraq remains a highly precarious state," says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y. "The central political conflict has not been resolved ... [and] as long as Iraq remains sectarian-based you're going to have instability and violence."
On Thursday, two separate bomb blasts left at least 60 people dead and more than 110 injured in Baghdad and Muqdadiya, north of the capital city. The attacks resembled past incidents linked to AQI, but it remains unclear who was responsible for them. Earlier this month, AQI launched a coordinated strike detonating seven car bombs in Baghdad that killed at least 37 people.
US officials have emphasized that, despite the renewed violence, US and Iraqi forces are making progress in the fight against remaining insurgent and terrorist elements. On President Obama's recent visit to Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, assured him that violence was at 2003 levels, before the insurgency began.
"These attacks [on Thursday] are an attempt to incite violence, but the Iraqi people have shown that they are rejecting this bankrupt philosophy," writes Lt. John Brimley, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force – Iraq, in an e-mail to The Christian Science Monitor.
AQI tries to undermine Awakening
The US had made significant inroads against AQI by building and funding a Sunni paramilitary group known as the Sons of Iraq (also referred to as the Awakening). But members of the group – which at one point included more than 100,000 members – have become disgruntled in recent months over the arrests of key leaders and a delay in payment from the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has been in charge of their activities since late last year.
"If you continue arresting, harassing, and shunning Awakening types – many of whom were originally derived from the insurgency – you're really playing with fire," says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and the former deputy director of the State Department's office of Near East intelligence.
Earlier this week, a senior AQI leader called on Awakening members to return to the terrorist organization. Other reports indicate that, amid growing neglect from the Iraqi government, AQI is having increasing success unravelling the community-policing organization.
Additionally, in the face of increased pressure from both the Awakening members and American and Iraqi forces, AQI, which originally behaved more like a militia than a terrorist group, had to go deep underground. It adopted more of a cellular operating structure that has allowed it to continue operations even if top leaders are killed or captured.
"It is a multisegmented hydra that can survive this kind of thing," Mr. White says. "It can survive being beheaded more."
US again caught between Sunni and Shiite
The Maliki government and Iraqi security forces remain predominantly Shiite organizations, providing fertile recruiting ground for AQI, which has played on sectarian tensions to recruit Sunnis.
If the Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni group, were to rejoin AQI or create new militias, American forces could find themselves in a difficult position.
"The Sunni Arab population that AQI depends on for support increasingly has the feeling that we [the US] are walking away from them," says Patrick Lang, a Middle East expert and former US Army officer. "There's this feeling that the Maliki government is so Shiite that it intends to not treat the Sunni Arabs very well, and the United States is not showing any inclination to continue to support [the Sunnis]."
Should the US take up arms against former Awakening members, it could create the perception that American forces had sided with the Shiites, some analysts warn. With strained relations between Iraq's three major ethnic groups – the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds – and no apparent road to a unity government, deeper conflict could still be brewing in the restive nation.
The US had the mistaken "belief that everybody would just decide to play nice in the school yard without their interests being served," says Mr. Lang. "We've made these mistake over and over again in Iraq."