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al-qaeda in iraq
group has new offices, new deadly plans for dissent

Khaled Waleed
Extremist militia, al-Qaeda in Iraq, is moving headquarters and has a new plan to increase sectarian conflict. A source familiar with the group says they will recruit members and gain locals’ confidence while…
9.02.2012  |  Baghdad

Previously the main headquarters for the al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni Muslim extremist militia, was in the northern city of Mosul. But now, according to a source familiar with the group, al-Qaeda is splitting up its command centres and establishing bases in the provinces of Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala. It is apparently part of an effort to strengthen its presence around Iraq as well as to confuse Iraqi security forces.

“The three new locations will make it very difficult for the security forces to hunt the organization’s leaders,” the source, who must remain unnamed for security reasons, told NIQASH. The sites will give, “al-Qaeda leaders more flexibility in supervising operations inside the country. Launching attacks inside Iraq will become easier.”

Between 2006 and 2007, al-Qaeda was able to control four Iraqi provinces in which most of the population was Sunni Muslim, as well as Baghdad suburbs with similar demographics. However the militia was later forced out by troops of the tribal Awakening Movement, also Sunni Muslim and backed by the US military in a ploy to get rid of al-Qaeda and similar groups.

With this new move though, it seems that al-Qaeda is seeking once again to try and gain traction in these provinces, as well as taking advantage of the withdrawal of US troops late last year and the political crisis that began immediately afterwards; the political process came to a standstill when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for his Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a prominent member of the opposition Iraqiya party.

The anonymous source explained that al-Qaeda was “taking advantage of the new situation in Iraq to get more control and to enact some new strategies”.

Al-Qaeda’s new strategies apparently focus on three main goals: recruitment of new members or bringing former members back to the fold, diversifying their sources of funding and gaining the confidence of the local population in the provinces where they were establishing their new headquarters.

Recruitment is clearly a problem. Recently Qassim Atta, the official spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, responsible for maintaining security in the capital city and its surroundings, said that the number of al-Qaeda fighters had dropped from around 33,000 in 2006 to around just 3,000 now.

A lot of al-Qaeda’s members in Iraq ended up being recruited into the Awakening Movement troops where they were paid. Recently though numbers taking part in the Awakening troops have also dwindled. Around 50,000 members of the approximately 96,000 strong Awakening forces are employed by the Iraqi government. However the remaining members are still waiting to be made part of existing security forces.

“Al-Qaeda was able to mobilize some of those who had withdrawn from the Awakening forces,” the source said. “It is determined to continue in its endeavours and those who refuse to re-join them will be assassinated.”

The latest incident in what appeared to be a campaign of such assassinations of Awakening Movement leaders happened in Salahaddin. A tribal leader and his son were attacked and killed in their home in Sainiya, a town south of the provincial capital of Tikrit, by gunmen suspected to be al-Qaeda fighters.

Gaining locals’ confidence could also prove problematic. During 2006 and 2007 at the height of sectarian unrest that verged on civil war in Iraq, the average Iraqi suffered a lot, with armed militias fighting one another on their streets.

Apparently though al-Qaeda has a plan. “The organization has learned from its previous mistakes,” the anonymous source told NIQASH. “It plans to exploit the fact that the people of these provinces have recently been treated badly by security forces. In this way, the organization will gain the people’s confidence.”

Recently what has been described as a campaign of mass arrests by the government has been frightening local people. According to critics, the government, led by the Shiite Muslim dominated State of Law bloc, is trying to get rid of any Sunni Muslim opposition through a campaign of mostly bogus arrests. The government itself said earlier it was simply searching for members of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath party.

“Al-Qaeda has been able to re-deploy in our province and they are taking advantage of the way the security forces are treating people,” the chairman of Anbar’s provincial council, Jassim al-Halbousi, told NIQASH. “The security forces act randomly and there are inconsistencies in the way they deal with security issues.”

As a result people in the province have started to feel resentful and frightened about the way that the government forces are treating them, al-Halbousi explained. Locals were living in continuous fear of a raid on their home or arrest.

A government spokesperson denied that security forces were acting in a hostile manner. “These [accusations] are mere fabrications and lies,” Iraqi government spokesman Tahseen al-Shaikhli, said. He did however admit that “at certain times, security forces could be the cause for al-Qaeda’s return.”

According to the anonymous source, the end game is to foment further sectarian conflict. Al-Qaeda apparently plans to attack Shiite Muslim areas after which they will do the same in Sunni Muslim areas. The plan is that both groups should feel threatened and want to fight one another.

“Since the withdrawal of US troops, the organization has sought to kill the largest possible number of Shiites,” the anonymous sources said. “And now it is preparing to launch attacks against the Sunnis too. Sunnis will soon feel threatened by Shiites,” the source concluded.