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.
Ogaidi said the total number of al-Qaeda in Iraq members across the country has plummeted from about 12,000 in June 2007 to about 3,500 today.
By all accounts, the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq has plunged. The U.S. military said the number sneaking in from Syria has dropped from 110 a month in late summer to about 40 to 50 a month now. Ogaidi said the total number of foreign fighters in Iraq is "in the tens -- not more than 200." Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a predominantly Iraqi group, but the U.S. military says it is led by Arabs from outside the country.
Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said Syria has increased border patrols and checkpoints, and Saudi Arabia, where many of the fighters are from, has tightened its exit visa policies. He also said al-Qaeda in Iraq's violence against civilians -- 4,552 attacks last year killed 3,870 people and injured 17,815, he said -- made it much more difficult for foreigners to live safely in the country.
"Al-Qaeda has alienated the very people it needed for support," he said.
The insurgent group is now reaching out to disaffected Sunni tribal leaders in a bid to win back their support, even as it attacks Sunnis working closely with the Americans, according to Abdullah Hussein Lehebi, an emir from the Amiriyah section of Anbar south of Fallujah. "In exchange, we would not target them again and would respect the authority of the tribal leaders," he said in an interview with a Post special correspondent at a date orchard near the Euphrates River in Amiriyah.
Lehebi, 47, whose nom de guerre is Abu Khalid al-Dulaimi, said the group's main focus now was to attack bridges, oil pipelines and telephone towers, as well as U.S. troops and their Sunni allies.
Some members of al-Qaeda in Iraq blame Muhajer, the group's leader, for their current predicament. Ogaidi said Zarqawi traveled constantly around the country to visit senior leaders and ensure that wounded fighters received compensation from the group. But he said Muhajer is rarely seen and doesn't take care of members such as Rafid, whose leg was amputated after an attack in the Garma region. Rafid now sits at home, hungry and unable to work, Ogaidi said.
"Everyone would be scared of Zarqawi as a tough leader," he said. "Whereas Muhajer has now failed in imposing his personality on the organization. He is mild-mannered and weak."Disheartened Fighters
Al-Qaeda in Iraq's change in tactics comes in response to the turmoil and self-doubt that arose among its members as they lost the support of Sunni tribesmen, a process vividly described in a letter by an unnamed al-Qaeda in Iraq emir that the U.S. military said it seized last November.
"This created weakness and psychological defeat," the emir wrote. "This also created panic, fear and the unwillingness to fight. The morale of the fighters went down."
The emir cited Muhammad, a 6-foot-3 computer major born in a Western European country, who crossed the Syrian border about a year ago with dreams of carrying out a suicide bombing in Iraq.
But when he arrived in Anbar, there was no mission for him.
"He was discouraged and asked his emir to transfer him to another district," the emir wrote to senior leaders in the 49-page letter, of which four full pages and other excerpts were provided to The Post by U.S. military officials. "His request was denied."
The letter said Muhammad was eventually summoned to carry out a small raid on a local "apostate resident," only to be shot in the arm. U.S. troops later found the village in which Muhammad was hiding and surrounded it. "He was killed by a sniper and died," the letter says.
The emir said potential suicide bombers were told by coordinators on the border that they could choose a suicide mission, which would kill 20 to 30 U.S.-led troops or their supporters, the letter says.
Yet a would-be bomber would then wait in the desert for months. "At the end he will be asked to do a small operation, such as murdering someone or blowing up a police car," the emir wrote. The foreigners would then become discouraged, he said, and return to their home countries.
The letter, which referred to the situation in Anbar as an "exceptional crisis," was found in an al-Qaeda in Iraq safe house in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, along with a half-dozen hard drives, thumb drives and more than 100 CDs and DVDs of material from the group, U.S. officials said. The authenticity of the document could not be independently confirmed.
In the letter, the emir said the difficulty in assigning tasks to potential suicide bombers was caused by increases in U.S. military operations and the formation of U.S.-backed Sunni tribal groups, known as Awakening councils, to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"We found ourselves in a circle not being able to move, organize or conduct our operations," he wrote. "There was a total collapse in the security structure of the organization."'Do Not Interfere in Social Issues'
The communique from Muhajer that appeared in some mosques in Anbar last month began with a typical al-Qaeda in Iraq rally-the-troops decree.
"Strike hard at the enemies and intensify your operations against the occupiers," it said. "Cut off their communications by blowing up the towers and the land telephone exchanges and destroy the bridges and the important highways which they use."
But the communique also shifted away from long-standing al-Qaeda in Iraq policies. "Do not interfere in social issues such as head covering, the satellite and other social affairs which are against our religion until further notice," Muhajer wrote.
"Do take care not to kill Sunni civilians that did not sympathize with the apostates such as tribesmen," Muhajer wrote, referring to Sunnis in the U.S.-backed forces.
The authenticity of the communique, which was not posted on major insurgent Web sites as many of the group's messages are, was confirmed by Lehebi, who said it was meant to be an internal order. U.S. intelligence officials said they had not been previously aware of the communique.
Reclaiming the support of local Sunnis may prove to be a significant challenge for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Ahmed al-Issawi, a spokesman for the Fatwa Council in Fallujah, said that the group of clerics issued a religious decree, or fatwa, on Jan. 17 that for the first time declared civilians killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq to be martyrs. "Al-Qaeda has killed hundreds of people in Iraq unfairly," he said bitterly.
At a checkpoint just south of Fallujah, Nadim Kaffi, a 44-year-old Awakening member, said al-Qaeda in Iraq was not nearly as close to the people as the Awakening councils.
"Al-Qaeda is almost done and finished. It no longer scares anyone," he said. "It is like an old man on the verge of his grave."
A Washington Post special correspondent in Anbar province contributed to this report.