- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2012

Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Osama bin Laden-inspired terrorist group that sank the country into sectarian violence five years ago, is trying to make a comeback in post-U.S.-occupied Iraq, analysts and intelligence officials say.

Washington is closely watching whether AQI, as it is called, in the next year can reassemble networks smashed by the U.S. counterterrorism campaign. American commandos and intelligence officers killed AQI leader Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2006 and then scores of other chieftains until, by 2011, the group was decimated.

But right after the last U.S. troops left Iraq in mid-December, the Sunni Muslim AQI claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks, primarily against Shiites, whose sect dominates Iraq’s government. Last week, an AQI spokesman claimed that it had carried out multiple bombings that killed 55.

A U.S. official told The Washington Times that AQI is carrying out more attacks this year than it did in the second half of 2011, when the U.S. military was pulling out. But the increased violence does not mean AQI is back to its old strength, the official said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, provided AQI and the minority Sunnis a recruiting mantra when he ordered the arrest of the country’s highest-ranking Sunni leader the day after U.S. troops exited.

“I think AQI, which had been severely battered by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign, has regained strength,” said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank. “The Iraqi government, dominated by Shia political parties, has greatly contributed to AQI’s revival by undercutting and persecuting Sunni politicians and tribal leaders.

“This has strengthened AQI’s limited appeal inside Iraq and allowed it to position itself more convincingly as the champion of Sunni Arabs against the Maliki regime, which is aligned with Shia Iran.”

Expanding influence

A sign of al Qaeda in Iraq’s resilience is that it has had the manpower to send operatives inside Syria to target President Bashar Assad’s regime. Al Qaeda thrives in power vacuums, something a deposed Mr. Assad might create.

“AQI, which always included many Syrians, Saudis, Jordanians and Yemenis, also is increasingly active inside Syria, where it seeks to pose as the champion of Sunnis against the Alawite-dominated Assad regime,” Mr. Phillips said. “AQI had developed smuggling routes that brought jihadists, money and supplies into Iraq through Syria.

“Now it is moving men, weapons and supplies across the border in the other direction, supported by Sunni tribes that straddle the border.”

The Assad family belongs to Syria’s minority Alawite Muslim sect, while the country is majority Sunni.

CIA Director David H. Petraeus told Congress last month that “al Qaeda in Iraq has been a bit more active than it was for quite some period.”

Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, who heads the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, testified that Iraq’s counterterrorism ability still needs U.S. help because AQI “is a capable and formidable foe.”

“While the Iraqis have some capability, there are certainly some things that we are still looking at doing to help them from an intelligence standpoint,” he said.

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