By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 31, 2008
BAGHDAD, July 30 -- The leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and several of his top lieutenants have recently left Iraq for Afghanistan, according to group leaders and Iraqi intelligence officials, a possible further sign of what Iraqi and U.S. officials call growing disarray and weakness in the organization.
U.S. officials say there are indications that al-Qaeda is diverting new recruits from going to Iraq, where its fighters have suffered dramatic setbacks, to going to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they appear to be making gains.
"We do believe al-Qaida is doing some measure of re-assessment regarding the continued viability of its fight in Iraq and whether Iraq should remain the focus of its efforts," Brig. Gen. Brian Keller, senior intelligence officer for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, wrote in an e-mail. But Keller said that the reliability of indications that recruits have been diverted has "not yet been determined" and that U.S. officials have no evidence that top al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders have gone to Afghanistan.
A largely homegrown insurgent group that American officials believe is led by foreigners, al-Qaeda in Iraq has long been one of the most ruthless and dangerous organizations in the country. But even some of its leaders acknowledge that it has been seriously weakened over the past year.
The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq has dropped to 20 a month, down from about 110 a month last summer and as many as 50 a month earlier this year, according to a senior U.S. intelligence analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.
Some al-Qaeda in Iraq members blamed the group's troubles on failed leadership by its head since 2006, an Egyptian who has used the pseudonyms Abu Hamza al-Muhajer and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Some of the fighters said they have become so frustrated by Masri that they recently split off to form their own Sunni insurgent group.
Abdullah al-Ansari, an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader in Fallujah, said in an interview with a Washington Post special correspondent that Masri had traveled to Afghanistan through Iran and designated Abu Khalil al-Souri, the pseudonym of another top leader of the group who came to Iraq in 2003, to run the organization in his absence.
"It's not known yet whether he would come back or not," he said, referring to Masri.
Col. Hatim Abdullah, an Iraqi intelligence official in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi, said Masri and two foreign fighters were believed to have crossed into Iran on June 12 through the border town of Zorbatia. He said the information was based in part on interrogations of al-Qaeda in Iraq members.
One of those al-Qaeda in Iraq detainees, Abu Abeer al-Muhajer, a senior leader in Ramadi whose real name is believed to be Ibrahim Salih Hassan al-Fahdawi, said after his July 9 arrest that Masri had traveled through Iran with 15 leaders, according to a police report and an interview with police officer Nihad Jassim Mohammed Saleh, who has questioned Fahdawi.
Makki Fawaz al-Milehmi, a senior leader of the group north of Fallujah, said in an interview with the Post special correspondent that Masri has left Iraq twice before and was going to meet with "some of our brothers" in Afghanistan. "The rumors now are saying that he escaped and this is not true. He just traveled," said Milehmi, who accused the U.S. government of spreading the rumors to hurt the morale of the group. "He will come back to Iraq anytime he wants, like he has done before."
Masri "did not escape or turn his back to us or abandon al-Qaeda in Iraq," said Ali al-Qaisi, 32, the commander of a recruitment unit who lost a leg during a battle with U.S. troops in Samra. "We have been informed he left Iraq to Afghanistan for several things such as reviewing the situation of al-Qaeda in Iraq with [Osama] bin Laden."
In a Tuesday briefing arranged by the U.S. military command in Baghdad, the senior intelligence analyst said he had not seen any indication of Masri's location since January, when the United States believed he was in Iraq.
Col. Steven A. Boylan, a spokesman for Petraeus, said, "Our current assessment is that he remains in Iraq." Some top Iraqi officials continue to say that Masri was killed last year, but the assertion has never been corroborated by the U.S. military.
A recent communique to al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders, however, suggests that a fighter known as Abdul Khalil al-Souri has taken on an increased leadership role in the group. The document, dated July 10, was signed by Souri instead of Masri, whose name is typically attached to such missives.
Souri, who is largely unknown outside al-Qaeda in Iraq, is part of a group of 33 fighters, known as "the first line," who came to the country in 2003 with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to Milehmi, the leader north of Fallujah. He called Souri "the second personality" in al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Abu Taha al-Lihebi, an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader in eastern Anbar province who recently split from the group, said he believed the communique was proof that Masri had left Iraq and was likely to be replaced.
Lihebi, a former Iraqi air force technician in his 40s, said one of Masri's key errors was fiercely attacking the Awakening movement, former Sunni insurgents who are now paid by the U.S. military, instead of trying to win back their support.
Indiscriminate attacks on civilians also caused the group to lose the support of local Sunni residents, Lihebi said.
"Al-Qaeda losing the Sunni population is like a human being losing the ability to drink water," he said. "Because of Masri's weak personality and leadership, al-Qaeda in Iraq was weakened and split and lost the Sunni population."
Earlier this month, Lihebi said his fighters would no longer pledge obedience to Masri and were withdrawing from al-Qaeda in Iraq because of the "escalating hate against them by Sunnis due to the useless operations that ignored the main enemy, which is the head of evil, the United States."
The splinter group, which named itself after Abu Anas al-Shami, an al-Qaeda in Iraq fighter it said had been killed by U.S. troops, also announced it would suspend suicide operations so that people would distinguish between the new group and al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In a sign of what U.S. officials describe as their success in eliminating Sunni insurgents inside Iraq, the American military has recently identified an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader outside the country as a major target, according to the senior U.S. intelligence analyst.
The leader, Abu Ghadiya, the nom de guerre of a Mosul native whose real name is said to be Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, was identified in February as a senior al-Qaeda in Iraq leader based in Syria who controls the flow of the majority of the group's foreign fighters, money and weapons into Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Keller, the senior intelligence officer, said uncertainties remain about the diversion of fighters.
"We continue to wrestle with the question of whether this represents a strategic shift on the part of al-Qaida," Keller said in the e-mail. "We do know that al-Qaida leaders will never give up entirely on Iraq, but they may in the future see Afghanistan or some other location yet to be determined as a place where their resources may be more effectively employed."
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher in Baghdad and Washington Post staff in Anbar province contributed to this report.