As US combat forces leave the country, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) appears to be creeping back into the Iraqi capital in a bold campaign of shootings, bombings, and intimidation focusing on undermining Baghdad’s developing police force.
Almost daily attacks on police and traffic police in Baghdad and Anbar Province west of the capital in the past two weeks have killed almost 30 police.
US military officials say those attacks have increased as the Iraqi police have taken more responsibility from the Iraqi Army in – a move eventually intended to allow Iraqi soldiers to move out of the cities and defend Iraq’s borders.
“It’s certainly about intimidation of the population and the police and certainly about Al Qaeda trying to reassert themselves in areas where they’ve been limited in freedom of movement,” said Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza, spokesman for US forces in Iraq.
Lanza said that the fact that security forces have remained at their posts during the attacks, unlike during the height of the insurgency when they commonly abandoned them, was evidence of a maturing Iraqi police force and Iraqi Army.
By next week, all of the US combat troops currently in Iraq are due to have left ahead of a Sept. 1 deadline in the US-Iraq security agreement. The focus of US and Iraqi officials though is on keeping some of the remaining 50,000 US forces here after a deadline of the end of next year.
On Wednesday, a senior Iraqi military leader, Gen. Babaker Zubari, stated publicly what most Iraqi officials say more privately – that he believed there would need to be a continuing US presence here after 2011. Under current plans to expand Iraq’s armed forces, destroyed and dismantled by the US in the war, Iraq will not have the capability to secure its land borders and air space for almost another decade.
30 gunmen attacked four checkpoints simultaneously
Along a main road in Baghdad's largely Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, presumed AQI fighters blazed a trail of destruction at the end of July – laying roadside bombs, fatally shooting police and soldiers at three checkpoints, and then setting fire to bodies before leaving an Al Qaeda-linked flag, according to witnesses and officials.
“There were about 30 gunmen – they attacked all four checkpoints at the same time, says policeman Dhia Kuthayar of the mid-afternoon attack. “I called in for reinforcements – our orders were not to move from our post. If I had been able to kill just one of them, I would have – even if I had to die doing it.”
The Adhamiya attack was followed by another at a checkpoint in the West Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, formerly the diplomatic district, which killed five police after gunmen with silencers opened fire. Witnesses said they left a black flag of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq, an AQI-affiliated group, at the scene.
As part of their campaign of intimidation, the attacks have also targeted the homes and families of policemen. In Fallujah, a policeman, his wife and 4-year-old daughter were killed in their home while in Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad, another policeman and his wife died when gunmen stormed their house.
Security forces stand ground, but Awakening members quit
In Adhamiya this week, Iraqi police working 24-hour shifts, some dressed in short-sleeved shirts and sandals, posted guard along the streets as a hot wind whipped up the dust. By late morning the temperature was already almost 120 degrees.
“Of course it’s Al Qaeda – they want to send a message that they are still here,” says policeman Hussein Kathem, referring to the attacks. “They don’t have a shape – they keep shifting. If we knew who they were we could fight them.”
Police in the neighborhood say after the attacks about 20 security people contracted to the police force – former members of the Sunni Awakening, a paramilitary force that the Iraqi government has long promised to transition to the regular security forces – had quit.
“They only make 300,000 dinars a month [about $240] – they decided it wasn’t worth it,” says Mr Kuthayar. Regular police make more than twice that although still not enough, they say, to even afford electricity for their homes.
But he says that unlike the Iraq of a few years ago, when the police disintegrated in the face of attacks and some Army units refused to fight, the security forces now are much more resilient.
“Before we didn’t have a state,” he says. “Now we have the police, the Army, intelligence, all the institutions of a state.”
He and his colleagues though say the biggest problem is lack of a government and rampant corruption. More than five months after Iraqis went to the polls political leaders are still fighting over who has the right to lead a coalition government.
'People now understand AQI is wrong'
Off the main road in Adhamiya, at the ‘Dream’ barbershop owner Arkan Mohammad was having the glass windows replaced in his shop after the checkpoint attacks – the sixth time they’ve been shattered.
During the height of the fighting in 2006, Mr. Mohammad left for Syria. When he found that country overcrowded with Iraqis, he went to Yemen to work as a barber before returning two years ago to find his shop completely destroyed. He says he does not think AQI will be able to take root again in neighborhoods like Adhamiya the way it did when people turned to Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias for protection.
“I don’t think people will receive Al Qaeda like they did before,” he says, during one of the long electricity cuts. “People now understand that Al Qaeda is wrong.”
He says though he believes Iraq is too unstable for US combat forces to withdraw right now.
“I would prefer that they not leave,” he says. “When the government is formed then they can leave.”