(NEW YORK) MintPress — Syria is in flames and blue-on-green attacks in Afghanistan are soaring, but it is perhaps the situation in Iraq that should be generating the most concern for the international community. For that, today, is where al-Qaida is at its strongest.
Indeed, last month capped a months-long show of force by al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). On Sept. 28, it claimed that it was behind a brash prison break last month in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that saw dozens of inmates escape, including many suspected members of the insurgent group.
The violent clashes during the escape left 12 people dead, including 10 prison guards. At least 45 prisoners were thought to be on the loose.
In a statement posted online, AQI claimed to have infiltrated the security force at the prison in order to smuggle in “weapons, silencers, hand grenades and suicide belts to the brothers inside the prison.”
The claim came just three days after U.S. and Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that the group’s franchise has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago, from 1,000 to about 2,500 fighters, and appears to be rebuilding.
And that AQI is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year.
Most of the fighters, officials said, are believed to be former prisoners who have either escaped from jail or were released by Iraqi authorities for lack of evidence after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last December.
In an exclusive interview with MintPress News, Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, an academic-turned-parliamentarian for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, said, “I think we know the know that the Bush administration made a big mistake by going into Iraq. They did not go there for weapons of mass destruction. Many believe they went there for oil.
“It is a learning experience for the American administration. You cannot impose democracy. It has to be home grown,” he continued.
“I am more worried about Iraq than Syria, because hundreds of thousands have already been killed, and it is still unstable, the factions are still there, and the seeds of the conflict are still there.”
Bush policies backfire
U.S. government officials first alleged that there were ties between the leaders of al-Qaida and former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein as part of the Bush administration’s rationale for the March 2003 invasion, without regard to actual evidence.
They claimed that there was a highly secretive relationship between Saddam and Osama bin Laden from 1992 to 2003, specifically through a series of meetings reportedly involving the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS).
In the lead up to the war, Bush alleged that the two might conspire to launch new terrorist attacks on the U.S.
“We could never verify that there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al-Qaida for 9/11 or any operational act against America, period.”
Ironically, though, it is because of the war that AQI is now alive and well — and poised in a way it never was before the conflict began to pose a veritable threat to Western interests both in the Middle East and further afield.
Roots of AQI radicalism
He took his eventual nom de guerre from the poor Jordanian mining town of Zarqa in which he grew up. By the time he was 18, both of Zarqawi’s parents were dead. He dropped out of school and soon wound up in prison, not for religiously motivated extremist involvement but for drug possession and sexual assault.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, experts who interviewed prison mates and former acquaintances of Zarqawi’s say his time in prison gave him focus and religious motivation. Soon after his release, he searched for jihadi groups in Jordan.
In early 1989, Zarqawi moved to Afghanistan, hoping to join the fight against the Soviet occupation, which by that time was dwindling. He then spent time working in Peshawar, the Pakistani border town known for its burgeoning black market and Islamic radicalism.
It was in Peshawar that Zarqawi apparently adopted the fundamentalist Salafist faith, which experts say fueled his antagonism towards Shiites as well as moderate Muslim governments. Peshawar might also have been where Zarqawi first crossed paths with bin Laden.
Zarqawi then commanded volunteers in Herat, Afghanistan, before fleeing to northern Iraq in 2001. There he joined with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), a militant Kurdish separatist movement, where he led the group’s Arab contingent. Many analysts say this group was the precursor of AQI.
According to a 2011 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Zarqawi was well prepared for the 2003 invasion. His strategy for defeating the coalition was to isolate U.S. forces by targeting its allies; discourage Iraqi collaboration by targeting government infrastructure and personnel; target reconstruction efforts through high-profile attacks on civilian contractors and aid workers; and draw the U.S. military into a Sunni-Shiite civil war by targeting Shiites.
In October 2004, Zarqawi officially vowed his allegiance to bin Laden, and the groups became inextricably linked.
“For al-Qaida, attaching its name to Zarqawi’s activities enabled it to maintain relevance even as its core forces were destroyed (in Afghanistan) or on the run,” said counterrorism expert Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation.
Critics also say that two early decisions made by the transitional Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) helped feed the insurgency and provide a breeding ground for AQI.
The first order banned members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party from all government positions, while the second disbanded the Iraqi army and security services. Both created hundreds of thousands of new coalition enemies, many of them armed.
The insurgency that followed provided AQI with even more fertile ground on which to expand its power base, fighting against both foreign forces and their domestic supporters.
The relationship between the al-Qaida leadership and its Iraqi affiliate, however, ended on June 7, 2006, when a U.S. airstrike killed Zarqawi. The hit was seen as a victory for U.S. and Iraqi intelligence and marked a turning point for AQI.
Even before his death, Zarqawi had drawn criticism for indiscriminate attacks on Iraqi civilians.
“The group had to kind of reshape itself” to appeal to Iraqis, observed Kathleen Ridolfo, a former Iraq analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
According to the National Review, AQI was then believed to have helped establish the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella organization of Sunni insurgent groups with similar aims. Experts believe ISI was formed as the political arm of AQI.
Little was known about the man believed to be the new head of ISI, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, but in April 2010 Iraqi and U.S. officials announced that Baghdadi, along with Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a former confidant of top al-Qaida figure Ayman al-Zawahari, had been killed in an Iraqi-led raid southwest of Tikrit.
Soon afterward, Ibrahim awwad Ibrahim ali al badri, from the northern Iraqi town of Samarra, was selected to lead AQI. Known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2011 he was officially designated a terrorist by the State Department, which offered a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to his arrest or conviction.
Two months later, U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, as required under a 2008 security agreement negotiated during the Bush administration.
President Obama considered leaving several thousand troops in Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal deadline, but negotiations disintegrated last fall when Baghdad refused to extend legal immunities to any U.S. combat troops remaining in Iraq, meaning they could have been prosecuted for defending themselves if under attack.
Add to that void a huge amount of purported government corruption along with a lack of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation and you have a recipe for disaster.
2012: Bring it on
Indeed, immediately following the U.S. pullout, AQI tried to exploit the widening political divide through a string of attacks targeting Shiites.
The militants were helped, say some analysts, by heavy-handed tactics on the part of the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, which has alienated many Sunnis and provided AQI with new recruitment propaganda.
Earlier this summer, AQI launched a campaign dubbed “Breaking the Walls,” which aimed at retaking strongholds from which it was driven by the American military.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi promised a violent campaign against the Iraqi government focused on bombing military installations and police posts, assassinating Iraqi judges and prosecutors and breaking Islamist prisoners out of Iraqi jails
Sabah al-Nuaman, a spokesman for the Iraqi government’s counterterrorism services, acknowledged that Iraqi forces have struggled to contain AQI, especially in intercepting technical communications such as cell phone calls, radio signals and Internet messages, since the U.S. military’s departure.
“The Iraqi efforts to combat terrorists groups have been negatively affected by the U.S. pullout, but we are trying our best to compensate and develop our own capabilities,” al-Nuaman said.
Meanwhile, growing civil unrest in neighboring Syria drew AQI fighters across the border to join the rebellion against the minority Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who has continued the bloody crackdown against opponents for the past 19 months.
It was, in fact, the Syrian civil war, say experts, that prompted al-Zawahri last February to once again wholly embrace the Iraqi insurgency in hopes of recruiting fighters and support against Assad.
According to the Associated Press, security forces have discovered the remnants of recent insurgent training camps in the vast desert of western Iraq near the Syrian border,.
An army raid last month on the sprawling al-Jazira region, which spans three provinces, found a 10-tent campsite littered with thousands of bullet shell casings, one of the highest ranking officials in the Iraqi army told the AP in an interview. “This indicates that this place has been used as a shooting range to train terrorists,” he said.
“Al-Qaida leaders decided that al-Jazira is the best area to train their fighters because it is very hard for security forces to reach it,” said Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on parliament’s security and defense committee and has been briefed on the camps.
“AQI wants to demonstrate that al-Qaeda is part of a resistance movement and a legitimate player in the overthrow of a (Syrian) regime that is rightly understood as tyrannical,” explained the New America Foundation’s Fishman.
Fast forward to today, and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, fueled by al-Qaida affiliated militants, is raging.
“When they see the killings in Syria and the U.S. not doing enough to save the lives of people there, or when they see the situation in Palestine, where people are still under siege, and what they saw during the Iraq war and how the U.S. killed hundreds of thousands, this accumulates into their psyche,” Dardery told MintPress.
Dardery echoes the sentiments of Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi, who recently told the New York Times that the United States had earned its bad reputation in the Middle East by backing generations of military dictatorships and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
“Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.”
Unfortunately, the games are far from over.