A gathering threat from Iraq, a safe haven for Al Qaeda; stockpiles of chemical weapons in the hands of forces deeply hostile to the United States; Iraqi terrorist groups capable of attacking American allies and even, perhaps, the homeland itself. That was the utterly false portrait of Iraq that the Bush administration painted in constructing a rationale to invade the country in March 2003. Four and a half years later, in a hideous twist of irony, that description is a dangerous reality. Although Al Qaeda had no meaningful relationship with the Saddam Hussein regime, it is now entrenched in Iraq and is carrying out scores of attacks a week, some of them with chemical weapons in the form of bombs containing chlorine gas. Al Qaeda has used Iraq as a launching pad for attacks on American allies and as a training ground for thousands of jihadist terrorists from across the Muslim world, and it has said it will use its stronghold there as a base from which to attack the United States.
President Bush, though he dismisses as "flawed logic" the notion that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had a role in all of this, now says there are terrorists there who pose a direct threat to the homeland. "We've already seen how Al Qaeda used a failed state thousands of miles from our shores to bring death and destruction to the streets of our cities—and we must not allow them to do so again. So however difficult the fight is in Iraq, we must win it," he said in a speech in July in Charleston, South Carolina. Indeed, President Bush has elevated the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq as the central justification for continuing to wage a large-scale war there, a rationale that has now superseded halting sectarian strife or installing a functioning democracy. At an Independence Day celebration in West Virginia this year, Bush asserted, "Many of the spectacular car bombings and killings you see are as a result of Al Qaeda, the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th." That assertion is, of course, demonstrably false, as Al Qaeda in Iraq wasn't founded until three years after the 9/11 attacks.
As the nation wrestles with the question of how to execute the inevitable withdrawal, it is incumbent on all of us to ask the questions the Bush administration has clearly not. What is Al Qaeda in Iraq? Who is its leadership? How important has it been in fanning the conflict in Iraq? How Iraqi an organization is it? Can it attack American interests overseas or the United States itself? To what extent is it communicating with or taking direction from Al Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan? Does it pose more of threat to the U.S. than Al Qaeda Central on the Pakistan border? How can Al Qaeda in Iraq be contained? And what would happen to the organization in the event of a total American withdrawal? Using Al Qaeda's Iraq presence as a propaganda tool is inexcusable and irresponsible. But so is ignoring it.
Al Qaeda's Emergence as a Force in Iraq
Though the Bush administration tends to gloss over this fact, Al Qaeda only established itself in Iraq in October 2004, well after the U.S. invasion, when its leader Zarqawi fused his Tawhid and Jihad group with Al Qaeda by publicly pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi had earlier featured at the center of administration efforts to tie the Saddam Hussein regime to Al Qaeda. In his since-thoroughly-discredited address to the United Nations in February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell described a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda network," elaborating that "Iraq today harbors a deadly network headed by Zarqawi's forces, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden" and that Zarqawi had set up his operations, including bioweapons training, with the approval of the Saddam Hussein regime.
No evidence of such a nexus has since materialized. Zarqawi's initial Iraq operation was limited to Kurdistan, part of the no-fly zone established by the United States in northern Iraq that was outside of Saddam Hussein's control. According to German intelligence officials who interrogated a defector from Zarqawi's group, Zarqawi traveled to northern Iraq with around 25 companions, mostly Jordanians, in mid-2002 and hooked up with the Kurdish terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, an outfit deeply opposed to Saddam's Baathist regime. Their plan was to use Kurdistan as a base to resist the impending American invasion.
Although Zarqawi ran a training camp in western Afghanistan up until the fall of the Taliban, he never joined the Al Qaeda fold, preferring to keep his independence from bin Laden—particularly because up until 2002 his preference was to attack Israeli, Jewish, and Jordanian targets rather than American ones.
It was only in late 2004, a year and a half after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that a closer alliance made sense to Zarqawi and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda wanted a foothold in the Iraqi insurgency, recognizing it as the cause célèbre for jihadists worldwide, while Zarqawi presumably recognized the power of Al Qaeda's global brand. After months of negotiations reportedly involving trips from Pakistan to Iraq by Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, a key bin Laden lieutenant, Zarqawi released an online statement on October 17, 2004, promising obedience to Al Qaeda's leader: "By God, O sheikh of the mujahideen, if you bid us plunge into the ocean, we would follow you. If you ordered it so, we would obey!" For Zarqawi the timing of the alliance made sense because the Iraqi insurgency was catching on as a cause in jihadist circles worldwide. The capture of Saddam Hussein and television images of insurgents battling U.S. troops in two-pitch battles for Fallujah in April and November 2004 encouraged more foreign jihadists to travel to Iraq, according to Mohammed Hafez, a visiting Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, whose 2007 book Suicide Bombers in Iraq authoritatively explores the insurgency.
Before joining forces with bin Laden, Zarqawi's group, though only a relatively small part of the overall insurgency, undertook a series of strategically significant operations that deterred the international community from taking on a greater role in stabilizing Iraq. In August 2003 his group bombed the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad, killing the U.N. special envoy to Iraq and prompting the United Nations to withdraw. And in November 2003, one of Zarqawi's suicide bombers killed 19 Italians, mostly paramilitary police, in the southeastern town of Nasiriya. Zarqawi's ability to deploy suicide bombers allowed his organization to launch more ambitious attacks than other insurgent groups and was a key contribution to Iraq's slide into chaos.
But Zarqawi's biggest impact in Iraq was in provoking sectarian warfare between its Sunni and Shiite communities. On August 30, 2003, his group exploded a massive car bomb outside a Shiite mosque in Najaf that killed 125, including one of Iraq's top Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim. In early 2004, the U.S. military released a letter it said had been written by Zarqawi to Al Qaeda associates that noted that provoking Shiite attacks on Sunnis was crucial to bolstering the Sunni insurgency. Sunnis in Iraq, the letter stated, "have little expertise or experience" in fighting and "for this reason…most of the groups are working in isolation with no political horizon." It went on, "The Shia in our opinion are the key to change. I mean that targeting them and hitting them in [their] religious, political and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their hidden rancor. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands [of the Shia]."
Zarqawi's strategy to attack the Shiites—which was continued by his successor Abu Ayyub al-Masri after he was killed in June 2006—has, unfortunately, proven wildly successful. The tipping point in the slide toward full-blown civil war was the February 2006 attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a sacred shrine for the Shiites, which triggered a more intense cycle of sectarian strife that has killed tens of thousands and caused more than a million to flee their homes. According to the U.S. military, that attack was masterminded by Haythem Sabah al-Badri, a former member of Saddam's Republican Guard who joined Al Qaeda after the U.S invasion and rose to become the Al Qaeda leader for the Samarra area. Badri was killed in a U.S. air strike in August.
As a result in part of the tensions created by these attacks, Al Qaeda in Iraq (also known as AQI) has been able to diversify its volunteer base. Made up largely of foreigners at its inception in late 2004, the group is now dominated by Iraqi fighters, according to the July congressional testimony of Edward Gistaro, a top U.S. intelligence official. There has been a range of estimates about the size of AQI. The New York Times estimates that AQI has a fighting force of between 3,000 and 5,000 with perhaps twice as many supporters. In November 2006 AQI leader Masri claimed in an audiotape that his force constituted 12,000 fighters.
Whatever the precise numbers, it is clear that Al Qaeda constitutes a minority of the Sunni insurgency and has significantly fewer fighters than the Islamic Army in Iraq, the country's largest Sunni insurgent group. Last November Lt. General Michael D. Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, estimated in congressional testimony that the total number of insurgents numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters with many more supplying and supporting them.
Despite being smaller than some other insurgent groups, AQI has punched considerably above its numerical weight in Iraq. In a background briefing in July, the U.S. military estimated that AQI was responsible for up to 15 percent of all attacks in Iraq in the first half of 2007, though some experts have contested this figure, arguing it is a product of assigning Al Qaeda culpability too readily. For its part, AQI has certainly claimed a high attack tempo, detailing on jihadist websites 1,147 individual attacks for the month of January 2007; the Islamic Army of Iraq claimed responsibility for only 339 attacks in the same period, according to IntelCenter, a company that tracks jihadist propaganda for U.S. government clients. And the way AQI collates volumes of attack data from half a dozen provinces, detailing each individual operation, does seems to show an ability to coordinate operations across Iraq.
AQI's use of suicide bombers in Iraq has made the organization especially deadly, but because of improvements in American armor, such attacks have been mainly directed at Iraqi security services and Shiite civilians in recent years. According to figures tracked by Mohammed Hafez of the University of Missouri, as of October 15, 2007, there have been 864 suicide bombings in Iraq that killed more than 10,000 Iraqis. Given that the U.S. military estimates that Al Qaeda's foreign recruits have been responsible for 80 to 90 percent of such attacks, AQI has contributed more significantly than is generally understood to the conservative estimates of 70,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the 2003 invasion.
AQI's suicide-bombing campaign has reached new heights since the U.S. military started surging troop levels at the beginning of this year, likely in response to the United States upping the ante. Hafez found that there have already been many more suicide attacks in Iraq in 2007 than in any other year, 351 as of October 15. And according to the U.S. military, in just the first six months of this year AQI killed or injured 4,000 Iraqi civilians. General David Petraeus accurately pointed out in congressional testimony in September that AQI was "off balance," but its destructive capabilities have clearly remained high.