BAGHDAD – The Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq has rebounded in strength in recent months and appears to be launching a concerted effort to cripple the Iraqi government as U.S. troops withdraw, Iraqi and American officials say.
The group asserted responsibility for four powerful bombings that targeted five government buildings in Baghdad in August and October – the deadliest attacks directed at the government in more than six years of war. Authorities say al-Qaida in Iraq intends to carry out additional high-profile attacks in the months ahead and is attempting to regain its foothold in former strongholds just outside the capital.
The strategy represents a shift in tactics from the group’s efforts to kindle the kind of sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of anarchy in 2007. The group suffered major setbacks after the surge in U.S. troops to Iraq that year, but American and Iraqi officials say that al-Qaida in Iraq has found more recent success by enlisting other groups in an effort aimed at undermining elections scheduled for January and the formation of a new government.
Although the group has lost many top leaders, funding sources and popular support, it stands to gain from a deeply divided political establishment, growing Sunni resentment toward the Shiite-led government, disjointed Iraqi security agencies and the diminishing ability of U.S. forces to engage in combat operations in Iraq.
“They’re still capable of conducting singular high-profile attacks,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. “Those are very difficult to prevent.”
What was once a foreign-led terrorist organization is now a mostly Iraqi network of small, roving cells that continue to rely on the flow of fighters and weapons smuggled through the Syrian border, albeit at a slower rate, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s chief of intelligence and investigations, said Iraqi officials suspect the Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 bombings, which targeted the Foreign, Justice and Finance ministries, among other entities, were planned at a secret meeting in Zabadani, a city in southwestern Syria, close to the Lebanese border. He said al-Qaida in Iraq leaders met with former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party on July 30 to chart out a new strategy.
“They made a plan to carry out major joint operations in central Baghdad targeting important buildings,” Kamal said in an interview. The attacks killed more than 250 people and wounded more than 1,000.