Shift in Tactics Aims to Revive Struggling Insurgency

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 8, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is telling its followers to soften their tactics in order to regain popular support in the western province of Anbar, where Sunni tribes have turned against the organization and begun working with U.S. forces, according to group leaders and American intelligence officials.

The new approach was outlined last month in an internal communique that orders members to avoid killing Sunni civilians who have not sympathized with the U.S.-backed tribesmen or the government.

From internal documents and interviews with members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a picture emerges of an organization in disarray but increasingly aware that its harsh policies -- such as punishing women who don't cover their heads -- have eroded its popular support. Over the past year, the group has been driven out of many of its strongholds. The group's leadership is now jettisoning some of its past tactics to refocus attacks on American troops, Sunnis cooperating closely with U.S. forces, and Iraq's infrastructure.

"Dedicate yourself to fighting the true enemy only, in order to avoid opening up new fronts against the Sunni Arabs," said the Jan. 13 communique, signed by the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer. "Do not close the door of repentance in the face of those Sunnis who turned against us," said the message, posted in Anbar mosques frequented by the group's followers.

The communique does not order an end to attacks against Shiite Muslims, whom al-Qaeda in Iraq has long seen as heretics, and it was unclear whether the views of group members in Anbar would apply in parts of the country where al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters are more active. Iraqi officials have blamed the group for two bombings Feb. 1 in predominantly Shiite areas of Baghdad that officials said killed as many as 100 people.

American intelligence officials said the communique is consistent with the past leadership style of Muhajer, an Egyptian also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who took command of the group after his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006.

"Zarqawi did a lot of just indiscriminate killing -- it didn't matter when, where, why or how," said one senior intelligence analyst who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity under military ground rules. "Masri is more picking his targets and trying to get away from the massive indiscriminate killings, because it created a big black eye for al-Qaeda in Iraq."

The U.S. military says it destroyed much of the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007, killing 2,400 suspected members and capturing 8,800, while pushing the group almost completely out of Baghdad and Anbar province. Although U.S. officials and their Sunni allies caution that al-Qaeda in Iraq remains dangerous and could find ways to regenerate, they assert that the group now is largely a spent force.

"We do not deny the difficulties we are facing right now," said Riyadh al-Ogaidi, a senior leader, or emir, of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the Garma region of eastern Anbar province. "The Americans have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the Sunnis against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully."

'We Made Many Mistakes'

Resting on a blanket in the garden of a squat concrete house in Garma, Ogaidi lamented al-Qaeda in Iraq's reversal of fortunes over the past year.

Ogaidi, 39, once traveled with 20 bodyguards in a four-vehicle convoy. But during the recent interview, he was nearly alone, wearing a white cap on his bald head and a gray dishdasha, or floor-length tunic, to disguise himself as a poor villager.

"We made many mistakes over the past year," including the imposition of a strict interpretation of Islamic law, he told a Washington Post special correspondent. Al-Qaeda in Iraq followers broke the fingers of men who smoked, whipped those who imbibed alcohol and banned shops from selling shampoo bottles that displayed images of women -- actions that turned Sunnis against the group.

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