As Al Qaeda moves fight to Syria, violence in Iraq drops sharply

After Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters left Iraq to join the Syrian rebellion, violence has dropped in Iraq, in some areas by as much as 50 percent in just a few months.

Mohanned Faisal/Reuters
Residents demonstrate under a giant Syrian national flag in support of the uprising in Syria, after Friday prayers in Falluja, 30 miles west of Baghdad, Friday, Feb. 17.

The departure of Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters from Iraq to join the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has had one benefit, Iraqi officials say: Violence has dropped in this country, in some areas by as much as 50 percent in just a few months.

Iraqi officials declined to provide precise figures for the drop-off or to estimate how many Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters have left the country for Syria. But the impact of the departure, they said, has been especially apparent in Ninewah province, which borders Syria and has long been the scene of some of Al Qaeda in Iraq's most violent bombings and assassinations.

The province's capital, Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, was once home to as many as 800 Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters, US officials estimated last summer. But one provincial security officer said Al Qaeda in Iraq attacks in Mosul have become infrequent this year, and the attacks that do occur generally are small or are detected before they can be carried out. The officer spoke only on the condition of anonymity because regulations prohibit him from talking to reporters.

"Violence is down in Mosul, maybe one or two operations per day, sometimes none," the officer said Monday. "Today, members of (Al Qaeda in Iraq) attempted to booby-trap a house, but they were discovered and the operation failed. Yesterday, two IEDs" — improvised explosive devices — "were planted and both were discovered, and they failed again. The day before that there were no operations at all."

As for the rest of the province, "I can say that violence is down more than 50 percent since autumn of 2011, and much more than that if compared with an earlier date, like autumn of 2010," the officer said.

Last Thursday, James R. Clapper, the Obama administration's director of national intelligence, told Congress that the United States thought Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters were responsible for the most spectacular rebel attacks on Syrian military forces in recent months, including suicide bombings in Damascus in December and January and two attacks earlier this month in Aleppo. The four attacks, which targeted Syrian military or intelligence facilities, killed at least 70 people.

Clapper called the presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Syria a "disturbing phenomenon" and warned that the anti-Assad rebels "in many cases may not be aware they are there." 

Iraqi officials said they'd suspected for months that Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters, who flocked to Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, were leaving for Syria.

"For some time now Al Qaeda members have been heading toward Syria to fight there, and as a result violence has gone down and we witness a much smaller number of operations carried out, overall, in Iraq," Col. Yahya al Ubaidi, an Iraqi intelligence officer, told McClatchy. He said violence had dropped throughout Iraq since late last year.

Iskander Witwit, the deputy chairman of Parliament's security committee, said the nature of some of the attacks in Syria had alerted Iraqi officials months ago to the likelihood that Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters had transferred their efforts to the anti-Assad cause.

"Their activities in Syria are clear to the eyes of all who know their hallmark: the bombings, the random killing, but the suicide bombings especially," Witwit said.

The result, he said, was that "operations carried out by Al Qaeda have dropped off in all of Iraq, but especially in Ninewah, where they had a large and clear presence."

He described the Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters as "preoccupied with their new jihad in Syria." 

Local officials in Ninewah pointed out, however, that violence still takes place in the province, driven by local political rivalries.

"The events in Syria have direct bearing on security in Iraq, no one can deny that," said Abdulraheem al Shammary, the chairman of the security committee in Mosul. "However, we cannot say that violence has stopped because Al Qaeda fighters have left Iraq and gone to Syria. Violence has not stopped; it has dropped off."

The anti-Assad revolt began nearly a year ago as peaceful demonstrations demanding political change that were met with fierce government repression. The United Nations estimated that government security forces had killed at least 5,400 Syrians before it stopped keeping count because it said it had no reliable way to gather the numbers.

The anti-Assad movement has become increasingly violent in recent months, however, as frustrated opposition forces, bolstered by defections from Assad's military, have taken up arms, fighting pitched battles with security troops in Homs and other cities. On Feb. 11, gunmen assassinated the head of the military hospital in Damascus, the first killing of a military officer in the capital.

The Syrian government claims that 2,000 security officers and soldiers have been killed since the uprising began last March.

Iraqi officials said they thought that many of the Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters who'd left Iraq were foreigners.

"Formerly, Syrians used to come to fight in Iraq, but now they are fighting in Syria," Adnan al Asadi, Iraq's acting minister of interior, said Feb. 2 in comments distributed to McClatchy last week.

Asadi also said that weapons were being smuggled from Iraq into Syria across the countries' nearly 400-mile-long common border, and that demand for assault rifles was so high that the price had risen nearly 10-fold.

Mudhir al Janabi, a member of Parliament's security committee, bristled at any suggestion that Iraqis are among those traveling to Syria.

"Iraq has no history of extremism. It never tolerated camps for training religious extremists before 2003. It does not export extremist-related violence," he said. "Let those who came from other countries and brought the violence with them go back. All we want is to be left alone, to lick our wounds and put our efforts into rebuilding our country."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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