The execution-style killings of 13 Iraqis over the weekend west of Baghdad has raised fears than a resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is taking advantage of the gaps between retreating US forces and Iraqi troops not yet capable of maintaining security on their own.
Iraqi security officials on Tuesday said 13 members of the same tribe were shot dead on Sunday by gunmen posing as Iraqi soldiers in two villages in the Abu Ghraib district on Baghdad's outskirts. The Associated Press quoted a spokesman from the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a Sunni political movement seen by Sunni insurgents as traitors, as saying a party official was among the killed.
The attack was carried out in an area where AQI has been making attempts to regroup as the US repositions fewer forces throughout more territory in the wake of the US-Iraq security agreement and an ongoing drawdown, say US officials familiar with the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Security experts say AQI, while considerably weakened, appears to be taking advantage of the spaces between effective security forces.
"I see the enemy taking tactical opportunities as we rearrange the puzzle pieces," says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "The Iraqis have asked for an American withdrawal and they have asked to assume responsibility for security and they are still developing the capacity for doing that against a very smart and ruthless enemy. There is more we could do for them if that's what we were asked for."
Located just west of Baghdad, Abu Ghraib is considered part of the "Baghdad belt" crucial to protecting the capital from insurgent attacks. Further west is the mainly Sunni Anbar province where AQI once flourished until it was sidelined by former allies who turned against them in a movement called 'the Awakening' and allied themselves with the US. Although the Iraqi government has promised to absorb the former US-funded force into its own ministries, many of its members fear they are being abandoned and left vulnerable to attacks by AQI.
"The IIP condemns this ugly crime and it is a worrisome indication that the situation might be deteriorating and it represents a revenge against the people who had helped stabilize the area," the Iraqi Islamic Party said in a statement.
AQI bombmaking cell
The area of Abu Ghraib where Sunday's attack was carried out lies between the areas of responsibility of two newly arrived US Army units and is believed to be a transit point for AQI as well as the location of a bombmaking cell. Since Iraqis took full control of their own security earlier this year, US forces advise and assist Iraqi forces who are in charge of security on the ground.
Nagl, who as an Army officer helped shape US counterinsurgency strategy, says he believes that AQI is no longer the strategic threat it was several years ago but that it continues to be able to inflict considerable damage.
"This attack to me is an illustration that there is work to be done and that the Iraqi security forces continue to need our help, in particular in intelligence. There has been, I think, an Iraqi desire to go it alone – that is understandable but they don't have all of the technical capabilities they need to win this war on their own."
Odierno: Prevent insurgents from moving into 'seams'
Further west near Ramadi, where Iraqi authorities have significantly restricted requests for help from American forces, US military officials say another AQI cell has regenerated – last month blowing up a bridge on a main route between Jordan and Syria.
Gen. Ray Odierno, in charge of US forces in Iraq, has said that one of the US priorities as American forces draw down will be to prevent insurgents from moving back into "seams" between different security forces in disputed areas. Odierno is expected to announce the formation of a joint security structure with Kurdish, Arab, and US forces in the north of Iraq designed to ease tension in those areas and to prevent AQI and other groups from taking advantage of gaps in security. The plan, recently agreed to by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would include joint patrols by all three forces as a confidence-building measure in areas along the border of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.