A gathering threat from Iraq, a safe haven for Al Qaeda; stockpiles of chemical weapons in the hands of forces 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. Four and a half years later, Bush is once again touting the threat from terrorists in Iraq as the key justification for continuing the war in Iraq. But in a hideously ironic twist, what was once fiction is now a dangerous fact on the ground. The president is still wrong when he claims that withdrawal would mean "surrendering the future of Iraq to Al Qaeda"; the group's few thousand fighters have no chance of ever taking over the entire country. But it is now deeply entrenched in Iraq and is carrying out scores of attacks each week, some of them using chemical weapons—chlorine-gas bombs. Al Qaeda has used Iraq as a training ground for thousands of jihadist terrorists, and it has said it will use its stronghold there as a base from which to attack the United States. 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 not: What exactly is Al Qaeda in Iraq? How dangerous is it really, to Iraqis and to Americans? And how can it be fought or contained? Using Al Qaeda's Iraq presence as a propaganda tool is inexcusable and irresponsible. But so is ignoring it.
al qaeda didn't establish itself in Iraq until October 2004—more than 18 months after the U.S. invasion—when the notorious Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fused his group with Osama bin Laden's organization. Back in 2002, Zarqawi's ragtag band of around 25 foreign fighters—mostly hardline Salafist Sunnis on the run from the authorities in Amman—had set up shop in Kurdistan under the auspices of Ansar al-Islam, a small Kurdish Islamist (and deeply anti-Saddam) group. Like bin Laden, Zarqawi had been a jihadist in Afghanistan, but he kept his distance from Al Qaeda and until 2002 sought to attack only Israeli, Jewish, and Jordanian targets—the near enemy, in jihadist parlance, not the far enemy, a.k.a. the United States. The Bush administration blithely ignored this fact when it made Zarqawi the core of its case for a "sinister nexus" between Saddam and Al Qaeda. In his infamous address to the United Nations in February 2003, Colin Powell argued that "Iraq today harbors a deadly network headed by Abu Musabal-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden." Powell claimed that Zarqawi's forces were operating (and getting bioweapons training) in Kurdistan with Saddam's approval, even though the area was essentially out of Baghdad's control thanks to the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone.
When the far enemy came to his terrain in 2003, however, Zarqawi did begin attacking coalition forces as well as international institutions—to devastating effect. One of the group's bombs killed the U.N. special envoy to Iraq while another left 19 Italians dead, the two attacks together serving to deter much of the international community from getting involved in Iraq.
But Zarqawi's biggest impact was in provoking sectarian warfare. On August 30, 2003, his group—still not affiliated with Al Qaeda—exploded a massive car bomb outside a Shiite mosque in Najaf. Among the 125 dead was one of Iraq's top Shiite clerics. Then in 2004, U.S. forces released a letter they said Zarqawi had written to Al Qaeda associates in Afghanistan; though the letter's authenticity is disputed, its content is consistent with Zarqawi's other statements. The letter argued that getting Shiites to attack Sunnis was crucial to bolstering the Sunni insurgency because Sunnis "have little expertise or experience" in fighting and "most of the groups are working in isolation with no political horizon.
"The Shia in our opinion are the key to change," it continued. "I mean that targeting them...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."
By this time, a closer alliance made sense to both Zarqawi and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda wanted a foothold in the Iraqi insurgency, seeing it as the cause célèbre for jihadists worldwide, while Zarqawi presumably recognized the power of Al Qaeda's global brand. After months of negotiations, 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!" (Since Zarqawi's death in June 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri—an Egyptian operative thought to have ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second in command—has deepened cooperation with Al Qaeda's top leadership.)
Zarqawi's strategy has, unfortunately, proved wildly successful. It was his group's February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a sacred shrine for the Shiites, that tipped Iraq into full-blown civil war. As Sunnis faced growing Shiite violence, Al Qaeda in Iraq—largely made up of foreign volunteers as late as 2004—dramatically increased its local membership; it now has at least 3,000 fighters, and according to Edward Gistaro, a top U.S. intelligence official, around 90 percent are Iraqi.
Though smaller than most insurgent groups, Al Qaeda in Iraq—often referred to as aqi—has been punching above its weight, contributing more significantly to the bloodshed than is generally understood. Mohammed Hafez, author of the authoritative 2007 book Suicide Bombers in Iraq, says the U.S. government has counted more than 800 suicide bombings in Iraq to date; because of improvements in American armor, more and more of them are directed against Shiite civilians, and an estimated 10,000 people have been killed. The military estimates aqi has been responsible for up to 90 percent of those attacks.
Of all the Sunni insurgent groups, aqi is also the only one that has declared an interest in targeting Americans outside Iraq. Its current leader, al-Masri, declared last November that "we will not rest from jihad until we have blown up the White House." Zarqawi himself believed that establishing a stronghold in Iraq would provide "strategic depth and reach" for jihadists throughout the Middle East. If that failed, he wrote in the 2004 letter, "we pack our bags and search for another land, as is the sad recurrent story in the arenas of jihad."
To be sure, aqi currently poses less of a threat to the U.S. homeland than Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan—in part because Al Qaeda's safe haven there is considerably more reliable. Inside Iraq, Al Qaeda constantly faces attack from the U.S. military, and the country's relatively flat terrain makes it difficult to conceal training camps. The lack of operational safety has meant that only the most committed and hardcore jihadists are willing to go to Iraq, limiting aqi's numbers.
Still, it is an oversimplification to maintain that the central front of the war on terror is either in Iraq, as many Republicans insist, or on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as Democrats are fond of saying. The sad fact is that today there are two key havens for Al Qaeda: Iraq and Pakistan's tribal areas.
Ironically, perhaps the most effective force working against Al Qaeda in Iraq is Al Qaeda itself. The barbaric violence, radicalism, and extreme puritanism of its recruits have turned off many Iraqi Sunnis. In some areas, aqi imposed Taliban-style restrictions on local people and kidnapped and beheaded civilians as well as fellow insurgents. Tensions between aqi and homegrown insurgent groups—composed mostly of former Iraqi Army troops and Sunni tribals—were rising as far back as 2005, when aqi intimidated Sunnis to boycott the national election.
In March of this year, aqi assassinated the leader of a key Sunni insurgent group, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, after he refused to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq, aqi's latest nom de guerre. Shortly afterward, a commander of the 1920 Brigades told the London Arabic daily Al Hayat that aqi's actions had "left resistance groups with two options: either to fight Al Qaeda and negotiate with the Americans, or fight the Americans and join aqi, which divides Iraq. Both options are bitter."