News Analysis: Has Al Qaeda Left Iraq? Has U.S. Strategy Changed?, By: Jalal Ghazi (New America Media)

Tuesday March 14, 2006

In the past three years Iraqi guerrillas worked with al Qaeda fighters, or Arab Afghans, in attacking U.S. occupation forces and undermining the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. There are now reports in Arab media, however, that al Qaeda fighters are leaving Iraq because the resistance has turned against them.  

Al-Watan Al-Arabi magazine reported that Arab Afghans fighting in Iraq are now returning to Afghanistan and the tribal areas in Pakistan by the hundreds. They are settling in areas under Taliban control in preparation for increasing the number of attacks to more than 500 a month on Afghan government and NATO forces in the spring.  

Mullah Muhammad Atta, an Afghani Mujahdeen leader, told the Al-Watan Al-Arabi that leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban will coordinate their attacks under a new strategy aimed at expanding their influence to new areas in Afghanistan, instead of hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.  

According to Atta, Al-Zawahiri, who personally called on Arab Afghani fighters to return to Afghanistan, has formed alliances with tribes in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region through a series of meetings. According to Al Watan Al Arabi, the U.S. air strike that targeted Al-Zawahiri on Jan. 13, 2006, in Pakistan, was in fact was aimed at one of those meetings. Al-Zawahiri was supposed to meet with tribal leaders to get their help in ensuring the free movement of al Qaeda fighters, especially those returning from Iraq.  

The arrival of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan may explain the sudden increase of suicide bombings there which, according to Abu Dhabi television, totaled 14 in the past three months.  

Why is al Qaeda leaving Iraq?  

Riyad Alam Dean wrote in Al-Watan Al-Arabi that the American administration has decided to turn its strategy in Iraq “180 degrees” by dropping previous plans to hand Iraq to the Shiites. Instead, the United States has decided to empower Sunnis and use them to undermine Iran’s role in Iraq.  

Dean’s article, published on Feb. 10, claims that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has finally persuaded the Sunni resistance, including senior Baathists in the former Iraqi army, to get rid of al Qaeda fighters in Iraq in exchange for 1) the reappointment of Baathist officials to sensitive political positions and 2) the removal of Shiite militias, especially the Badr Corps from the interior ministry. These militias were implicated in torture and reprisal killings of Sunnis.  

Two days later, on Feb. 20, Khalilzad publicly threatened to cut off funding to the Iraqi government if the ministries of defense and interior remained under “sectarian” control.  

To fulfill their part of the deal, Bsathists, Sunni religious scholars and religious resistance groups launched coordinated and comprehensive efforts to cleanse Iraq of al Qaeda fighters. Imams called on worshipers in mosques to expel al Qaeda, and Iraqi tribes formed committees especially designed to expel armed groups sympathetic to Al-Zarqawi from Al Ramadi, Samara and the Sunni triangle.  

The Sunnis’ efforts in tracking and attacking al Qaeda fighters led to the arrest of 400 suspects and forced hundreds to flee Nenawa and Anbar provinces, which were the strongest al Qaeda strongholds in Iraq. Many, including Al-Zarqawi, are believed to have escaped from Iraq. Simultaneously, U.S. forces also trained new Iraqi troops especially for the purpose of eliminating Al Qaeda and expelling its members from cities under their control.  

This, of course, could have negative consequences on neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as escaped al Qaeda fighters might, upon return, target vital civilian institutions to destabilize the two kingdoms.  

According to Dean, secret meetings have been held between American and Sunni representatives almost every week since Dec. 15, 2005. American generals then started to meet directly with leaders from the armed Iraqi resistance groups in Anbar province in Iraq and in Jordan since January 2006.  

Leaders from more than 12 armed Baathist and religious resistance organizations (excluding al Qaeda) have been at these meetings, including senior Baathists from the Republican Guards and Saddam’s intelligence agency, as well as senior Baathist officials who organized and financed resistance operations from outside Iraq. At least two senior Baathists who attended the meetings were recently released from U.S. prisons in Iraq and were very close to Saddam. 

Why did the American administration decide to empower the Sunnis?  

First, the U.S. forces have simply failed to quell the resistance, which has managed to kill 2,300 American soldiers and inflict severe injuries to thousands of others, utilizing innovations such as using laundry detergent to maximize burns caused by roadside bombs.  

Second, Dean believes that the United States has given up plans to establish an independent Shiite government in Iraq because Iran has simply managed to advance its favorite loyal candidates and parties in all the Iraqi elections, thus transforming the toppling of Saddam’s regime into a great Iranian victory.  

Third, the United States feared that Iran would act on its threats to use its influence over Iraq’s Shiite militias to incite them into attacking U.S. soldiers. The head of the Iranian Expediency Council, Ali Rafsanjani, made the threat clear when he said, “The 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq are in the mouth of the lion.”  

The threat was further confirmed when the leader of the Shiite Mahdi army in Iraq, Muqtada Al-Sadr, made his famous statement while he was visiting Tehran that he would defend Iran. The United States decided to empower the Sunni resistance, including Baathists, to counterbalance Iran’s threat to turn Iraq’s Shiites against American soldiers.  

After three years of war, the Bush administration has come to the conclusion that it should empower the same group it toppled three years ago. The United States might also have to make a similar deal with the Taliban as the only way to isolate al Qaeda fighters and eliminate them from Afghanistan.