Traces of extremist militia can easily be found by anyone visiting the orchards in districts on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Nearby government buildings are abandoned and burnt out and empty shells of burned cars litter the place.
Recently, excerpts from an official government document were made public. The document contained military directives from the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister warning local security staff about possible terrorist activities in their areas. These areas include Habhab and Adheem to the north of the city, Taj to the northwest, Abu Ghraib to the west and Yusufiyah and Latifiya to the southwest.
Some of these areas are close to towns that once had strong connections to Sunni Muslim extremist groups like al-Qaeda, which formed strong links to local tribal groups and made these places centres of violence and intrigue. And according to state sources, apparently the extremists are regrouping in these areas again.
The majority of people in the groups associated with the Islamic State of Iraq – which is generally acknowledged as a group of Sunni Muslim extremist groups prone to violence and including al-Qaeda – are Sunni Muslims (Shiite Muslims have their own extremist militia). And these rural centres on the capital’s outskirts, populated mostly by Sunni Muslim tribes, became major gathering points for the terrorist organizations.
Originally a lot of these rebels were well trained fighters, previously part of Saddam Hussein’s army, which was disbanded by the American interim government after ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003. The former soldiers were not compensated and were left unemployed; a combination of their situation and antipathy between themselves and Iraq’s Shiite Muslims led to increased violence and what was virtually a civil war.
There were also many fatwas issued by religious men, both from inside and outside of Iraq, urging people to join the extremist groups back then.
And now they seem to be back. “Armed militants have been planning terrorist operations at meetings they organize in private houses in these rural areas,” the government document said. “These areas are being used to plan armed attacks and suicide bombings.”
The government warning was based on observations of militant groups’ movements, intelligence from double agents inside the groups and confessions by recently arrested members of those kinds of groups. And the warning is borne out by a recent wave of car bombings, assassinations and bombings.
The most obvious example was a late September prison break in Tikrit that the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for and which saw around 100 prisoners escape, including convicted terrorists on death row there.
The government document said that part of the reason for the prison break had been to provide the organisation with more members willing and able to carry out attacks.
Iraqi security forces have not been particularly successful in shutting down these extremist cells on the outskirts of Baghdad and in the south of the country. “The performance of security forces in areas on the outskirts of Baghdad has been a total failure,” Iskander Wattout, the deputy chairman of the defence and security committee in the Iraqi Parliament, said.
Wattout, formerly a senior officer in the Iraqi army, said this was because of “the ability of al-Qaeda to infiltrate local security services in these areas, which were – and in many cases, still are – strongholds of radical religious thought. It’s also because of the lack of accurate intelligence coming out of here. The security forces need accurate information,” he concluded.
The news came at the same time as both the US and Iraqi government were reporting an increase in the extremist group’s members, from around 1,000 previously to as many as 3,000 now. Most of the new members are thought to be Iraqis but there are also a handful of other nationalities involved.
According to the government issued document, some of the Iraqis rejoining the extremist groups are former members of the tribal Awakening Movement. The Awakening Movement was a home grown initiative dating back to 2006, which saw tribal groups with a Sunni Muslim background halting their fight against the US military and instead taking arms up against Sunni Muslim extremists, particularly al-Qaeda, in Iraq. They were also being paid by the US military until that responsibility fell to the Iraqi state.
Currently though some members of the Awakening Movement, previously up to 90,000 strong, were caught between a rock and a hard place. In late 2008, the Iraqi state began paying the wages of Awakening Movement members and it also promised to begin integrating the militias into state forces proper.However this process has not gone smoothly and many Awakening members have not been integrated into the military while they’ve also become targets for al-Qaeda extremists, who, after the withdrawal of US troops, started a campaign of intimidation and murder targeting them. Abandoned by everyone, as one of their leaders put it, some have started to return to Iraq’s al-Qaeda or similar groups.
Local tribal leader, Muammar al-Dulaimi, formerly the deputy leader of the Awakening group in the Taji area, confirmed this. He said that some members of his group who had not been integrated into the Iraqi military and hadn’t joined any other security institute had secretly joined al-Qaeda.
“Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting people in places where they used to be strong,” said al-Dulaimi, who agreed that he would fight al-Qaeda again if necessary and if he got support from government troops in the same way that the US military had supported him.
The government document that warned of the resurgence of al-Qaeda suggested that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is currently still acting Minister of Defence and National Security, send further army and police forces into these areas to support the troops that are already there.
Having received this information, the military leaders in these areas instituted some new measures. The government document was directed at them more than local police units, whom the government apparently doesn’t trust. The new measures have included raids on suspicious areas, the arrest of suspected militants, more patrols of agricultural areas like citrus and date orchards that could be used for training camps or meetings and the installation of surveillance cameras.
In a press release, the contents of which were published in Iraqi media last Thursday, former Minister of the Interior, Jawad al-Bolani, wrote that: “Al-Qaeda has started to regroup and mobilize members who are scattered around the country. Over the past months the lords of death have been trying to facilitate the return of some of their members to Iraq and they’ve tried to gather elements who scattered all over the country.”
The return of extremist organisation to their strongholds is obviously a major cause for concern in Iraq as well as on an international level. Those who know the groups’ strategies also worry that they have a new, nihilistic philosophy based on bold, guerrilla-style confrontations at well guarded, state-sponsored locations. There, they say, the extremists will use this new generation of members to inflict the worst possible damage with no real regard to who will win any kind of battle.