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Resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq seeks to undermine government

A guard inspects a day-care center damaged in a blast Oct. 25 near the Justice Ministry in Baghdad. Al-Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility.
A guard inspects a day-care center damaged in a blast Oct. 25 near the Justice Ministry in Baghdad. Al-Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility. (Hadi Mizban/associated Press)

The U.S. troop surge in 2007 and the creation of American-funded Sunni paramilitary groups left al-Qaeda in Iraq reeling, as scores of its leaders were killed or detained.

But after the provincial election in Iraq this year, al-Qaeda offered an olive branch to other Sunni extremist groups, issuing a message that even went as far as extending "a hand of forgiveness" to those who worked with the Americans.

Some groups responded favorably to the overture, but there is little evidence that al-Qaeda in Iraq's membership has swelled significantly, said Rita Katz, who runs the SITE Intelligence Group, a Bethesda-based organization that analyzes extremist organizations. It does not appear that Sunni paramilitary groups that once worked with the United States have rejoined the insurgency, even though many have been angered that the United States has handed responsibility for them to the Shiite-led government.

Change in strategy

U.S. and Iraqi officials blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq for major attacks targeting civilians in Baghdad and northern Iraq this year. The bombings did not unleash the kind of sectarian violence that followed similar attacks in 2006 and 2007, and officials and experts say that al-Qaeda in Iraq appears to be focusing its strikes on government targets.

"AQI has perhaps realized that in order to gain as wide a base of support as possible, the group must fight an enemy that can be more easily justified through an interpretation of Islamic law," Katz said, referring to the targeted government buildings, which al-Qaeda in Iraq considers extensions of the U.S. occupation. "While the group may still, in fact, be carrying out attacks on civilians, especially in Shia areas, the group does not take credit for these attacks for fear of losing popular support."

The Islamic State of Iraq this month issued another plea calling for Sunnis to rally around a common end goal, according to an online posting translated and analyzed by SITE.

U.S. officials said the recent bombings were a last-ditch attempt by a marginalized, weakened group to regain relevance.

"My own personal analysis is there are some dispersed groups trying to bond for some short-term common interest," said Col. Mark R. Stammer, a brigade commander in Anbar province, where recent attacks have been blamed on al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaeda in Iraq remains hazy. In April, the Iraqi government announced that it had arrested the presumed leader of the umbrella organization, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Odierno said this week that there are probably two or three individuals who assume Baghdadi's identity but that the United States thinks the group's leader remains at large.

Iraqi and American officials worry about a rise in attacks in the run-up to the elections, scheduled for Jan. 18.

The weeks and months after the vote could be particularly critical because key security jobs could go unfilled indefinitely as elected officials divvy up ministries and major posts. The government was virtually paralyzed after the 2005 election amid squabbling over top jobs -- an impasse that coincided with an increase in violence.

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.


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