RFE/RL, August 02, 2012
Al-Qaeda is back in Iraq, a fact underscored by a wave of spectacular attacks this summer.
With 325 Iraqis killed by militants, according to statistics released on August 1 by the Iraqi Health Ministry, July was the country's deadliest month in two years.
Al-Qaeda, believed to be on the wane in the country when U.S. forces withdrew troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, played a direct role in the violence through affiliates.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which carried out numerous large-scale attacks in 2004-07, has taken the opportunity provided by the U.S. withdrawal to regroup and even expand its reach abroad.
And the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella group of militant organizations that includes Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has taken responsibility for a number of deadly attacks recently.
One, on July 23, involved tens of coordinated strikes across the country that targeted Shi'a and left more than 100 people dead.
Both appear to have benefitted from the unrest in neighboring Syria.
The U.S. State Department reported this week that Al-Qaeda worldwide is "on the path of decline," particularly after the death of its founder and leader Osama bin Laden.
Nonetheless, it also noted the resiliency of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Sunnis Against Shi'a
"In fact," the report read, "towards the end of 2011, AQI was believed to be extending its reach into Syria and seeking to exploit the popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad."
Meanwhile, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared the conflict in Syria to be part of the broader struggle between Sunnis and Shi'a in the Middle East.
ISI poses as the champion of Iraq's disgruntled Sunni minority, and regional specialists see it as trying to link itself to the Sunni majority in Syria, which is fighting against al-Assad's Alawite Shi'ite regime.
Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, points to Al-Qaeda's resurgence in Sunni-populated eastern and central Iraqi regions since the beginning of this year and believes the group sees opportunities arising out of the volatile situation in Syria.
"To a great extent, the conflict between the Sunni rebels in Syria and the Shi'ite or Alawite government there is definitely granting Al-Qaeda's activities in Iraq more legitimacy and more momentum," he said.
Seth Jones, a counterterrorism specialist at the Rand Corporation in Washington, agrees. He says Al-Qaeda in Syria is an offshoot of the group's Iraqi affiliates. He says that Al-Qaeda in Iraq provides weapons, fighters, and bomb-making expertise to its Syrian contingent.
According to Jones, ISI leader Al-Baghdadi also has some influence on Abu Muhammad al-Julani, head of Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant. He maintains that such links provide Al-Qaeda with an opportunity to carve out a sanctuary in Syria.
"I think the instability in Syria and the Al-Qaeda in Iraq footprint in Syria provides an opportunity to revitalize in Iraq; recognizing though, that at the moment Al-Qaeda in Iraq is in a much weaker position than it was, say, in 2004 and 2005," he said.
'Worse To Come'
But the growing strength of Al-Qaeda has united Baghdad and Damascus in an unspoken alliance.
Syria characterizes the rebels as "terrorists".
Senior Iraqi official see branches of Al-Qaeda in both countries as one organization. The Iraqi government has distanced itself from Arab League calls for Al-Assad to step down.
While Syria hosted more than 1 million Iraqi refugees, Baghdad has imposed tight restrictions on the entrance of those attempting to flee fighting in Syria.
Soltan sees this as a sign of worse things to come.
He envisages the situation continuing to deteriorate in Iraq as the country's politicians fail to muster a workable power-sharing settlement. This, he says, has angered many Iraqis who are facilitating Al-Qaeda's return.
Soltan predicts that given the transnational nature of identities and ethnic and religious affiliations in the Middle East, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are likely to merge in future.