Al-Qaida in Iraq is down but not out
By Robert Burns - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Jul 25, 2007 18:11:39 EDT

BAGHDAD — Darkness had fallen across the desert when U.S. soldiers in Humvees noticed two tractor-trailer rigs stopped on a roadway. A closer look revealed 40 to 50 men dressed in white robes and new white running shoes huddled beside the trucks.

Startled by the nine Americans, the men opened fire with AK47 rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, kicking off a 23-hour gunbattle that killed two Americans.

The fight was a dramatic reminder, U.S. commanders told The Associated Press, of the resilience of al-Qaida in Iraq. The shadowy organization has been run out of some parts of the country yet still has the will, financing and fighters for significant attacks — and not only in Baghdad.

The episode occurred in the remote expanse of Anbar province, on a patch of land along the Nassar Canal about 65 miles west of Baghdad.

“They’re in disarray, but they’re always trying to make a comeback,” Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said in an interview. His area includes Diyalah province, where al-Qaida in Iraq had a firm grip until recent weeks of heavy U.S.-led fighting.

The homegrown Sunni extremist group, comprised mainly of Iraqis but in some cases led and financed by foreigners, has been forced to retreat from many of its former strongholds. Last year, it lost its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian. Yet, it fights on.

In a series of AP interviews over the past 10 days, U.S. and Iraqi commanders, as well as U.S. military intelligence officers, described al-Qaida in Iraq as on the run but not on the ropes.

Privately, some senior officers speak hopefully of 2007 bringing the group’s demise. Others are less optimistic. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top day-to-day U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview that U.S. forces “have really just started” to achieve their goals against the group.

Military and intelligence officers who have studied al-Qaida in Iraq — as well as those who have engaged it in battle — say that much about it is unknown. There are differing views on the degree of damage done to the group and on how potent it remains.

In November, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed in an audio tape that it had mobilized 12,000 fighters who had “vowed to die for God’s sake.” U.S. military estimates of its size are hard to pin down.

The al-Qaida in Iraq puzzle is evident in the story of the gunbattle along the Nassar Canal, on a stretch of land called Donkey Island. American intelligence had picked up indications that insurgents had become active at nighttime in that area in the weeks since U.S. troops shifted elsewhere. So Capt. Ian Lauer and his Charlie Company of Task Force 1-77 went for a look and got a surprise they will never forget.

When the guns fell silent on the evening of July 1, the American casualties totaled two killed and 15 wounded. They had killed 35 of the enemy and captured seven, according to Lt. Col. Miciotta Johnson, commander of Task Force 1-77, who oversaw the battle.

In a telephone interview this week, Johnson said all of the white-clad fighters were armed to the teeth and aiming to attack U.S.-backed Iraqi leaders in nearby Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. They had masked their approach by hiding inside the tractor-trailers, where they used hay to conceal a false bottom that contained improvised bombs, homemade grenades and other arms.

Johnson said he was uncertain of the fighters’ affiliations, but a senior U.S. officer with access to information from the detainees’ interrogations said Wednesday there is no question they were al-Qaida in Iraq operatives. The officer was speaking privately because of the sensitivity of the information. Johnson said some had Iraqi passports, but the nationalities of most had not been determined.

Col. John Charlton, commander of U.S. forces in the Ramadi area, said he considers that battle to be a reminder that although al-Qaida has been virtually run out of Ramadi in recent months it remains a threat.

Al-Qaida is far from the only extremist group facing U.S. forces, but it is the one commanders say demands the most comprehensive and effective targeting in coming months.

In some parts of Baghdad, rogue elements of the Madhi Army, the military arm of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, present a threat that is arguably equal to or greater than al-Qaida.

One such area is the Rashid district in the southern reaches of the capital, where Army Col. Ricky Gibbs’ 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, is battling both extremist groups in some neighborhoods.

“I’m trying to contain JAM and destroy al-Qaida,” Gibbs said, using the acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi, the U.S. military’s preferred term for the Mahdi Army.

He does not seek the Mahdi Army’s destruction, he says, because al-Sadr’s movement has a legitimate role in the central government. Rogue elements within it, however, are battling al-Qaida for supremacy in some neighborhoods and are using Iranian help to target U.S. and Iraq troops.

One Sunni adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said most Sunnis do not support al-Qaida. His explanation for why Sunnis nonetheless have largely tolerated — and in many cases helped — the group tells a lot about the depth of sectarian divisions in this country and how that split helps al-Qaida.

The adviser said ordinary Sunnis are convinced that the group is their only hope for protection against rival Shiite militias.

One U.S. military focus this summer is to persuade those Sunnis that they don’t need al-Qaida for protection — that unlike in the recent past, U.S. forces will remain in contested areas after they have run out al-Qaida fighters, rather than moving on and allowing them to return.

President Bush, explaining his justification for the Iraq war, on Tuesday described al-Qaida’s burgeoning operation in Iraq as a direct threat to the United States. And he accused critics in Congress of misleading the American public by suggesting otherwise.

He cited a report released last week by U.S. intelligence agencies, which said they believe the broader al-Qaida terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden is using a growing strength in Iraq and Pakistan to plot attacks on U.S. soil.

Battlefield generals in Iraq haven’t made the same case.

Odierno, the commander in Iraq, was asked last week whether he saw any evidence that the terrorist organization there was trying to leverage its capabilities for attacks outside the country, including in the United States.

“What I know is there is clearly a relationship between al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan or Afghanistan or wherever they are,” he told Pentagon reporters. “Al-Qaida in Iraq, I think, is struggling as — with its mission here in Iraq, and currently I think it’d be very difficult for them to export any violence outside of Iraq.”

Still, he added, al-Qaida is attempting to create a training area in Iraq, and that’s “the biggest threat out of al-Qaida in Iraq.”