End to terror in Iraq?
While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has declared the "war on terror" to be over in Iraq, Al-Qaeda has been stepping up its attacks, writes Salah Nasrawi
Just months after the United States withdrew its last combat troops from Iraq, security in the beleaguered nation has sharply deteriorated amid concerns that Al-Qaeda may be making a comeback and exploiting the political instability and turmoil in neighbouring Syria.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has orchestrated dramatic bombings in the country over recent weeks that have been the starkest sign to date that the Iraqi security forces are still not prepared to take on the fight against the group and that they remain vulnerable to its attacks.
The group, which has launched at least one major attack a month since the US troops withdrew in December, is now responsible for nearly daily bombings, roadside blasts, drive-by shootings and assassinations.
The coordinated assaults, carried out with explosives, mortar shells and fire arms, have mostly targeted Shia Muslims, the security forces and government officials, indicating the continuing ability of the group to wreak havoc in Iraq.
The most recent spate of attacks comes amid a prolonged political crisis over power-sharing in Iraq, with the leaders of the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities accusing Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki of authoritarianism and seeking to reinforce his rule.
Al-Qaeda insurgents have been attacking Shia targets since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the Sunni-led regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
At the peak of the attacks in 2006-2007, attacks on Shias ignited sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands of people, pushing Iraq to the brink of civil war. The violence later diminished when the US announced plans to start leaving the country in 2011.
Last month, the Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq said it was launching a "sacred offensive" aimed at recovering territory given up by the militants. It also vowed to target Iraqi judges and prosecutors and said it would try to help prisoners break out of jails.
Some 325 Iraqis were killed in July and 679 wounded, making it the bloodiest month in two years. Some 282 others were killed in June, and about 700 people were injured. The figures, released by the government, showed that civilians, soldiers and policemen were among casualties.
A wave of attacks has also targeted prisons where Al-Qaeda operatives are being detained. Last week, gunmen attempted to break into the anti-terrorism directorate in the capital, and one day later they used bombs to breach a high-security prison north of Baghdad.
In both incidents the gunmen were killed trying to free the jailed insurgents. On Friday, two prisoners and a guard were also killed in clashes when Al-Qaeda inmates attempted to break out of a prison in the central Iraqi city of Hilla.
Iraqi officials have dismissed Al-Qaeda's operations as insignificant. "The war on terror is over," Al-Maliki declared on Monday, adding that "what remains is only a bunch of cells backed by other [foreign] countries."
However, despite Al-Maliki's remarks some Iraqi officials have acknowledged that Al-Qaeda may be making a comeback in Iraq and showing increasing confidence.
Such officials say that the militants are being helped by the insurgency in neighbouring Syria, where rebels are battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The head of the Iraqi intelligence agency Qassim Atta has also admitted that Al-Qaeda may be gaining strength, telling Iran's Al-Alam television network this week that Al-Qaeda was changing its operations to increase "security chaos" in Iraq.
Meanwhile, analysts believe that the latest wave of attacks may mark the beginning of a new campaign. Militant groups may be focussing their efforts on the security forces in order to make them seem weak, they say, and the tactic may be designed to fuel public resentment of the security forces and government.
In Baghdad and other cities, there has been anger at the perceived "militarisation" of everyday life, with residents complaining about being forced to live in walled neighbourhoods dotted with security checkpoints manned by ineffectual and sometimes corrupt police and soldiers.
Many residents do not trust the government troops and seek protection from local militias and even from Al-Qaeda itself.
The increased attacks have signalled flaws in the Iraqi security forces, which remain woefully exposed and unable to fill the void left by the Americans' departure.
One major shortcoming has been that they lack an appropriate counterinsurgency strategy, a requirement in defeating an enemy that is entrenched in an often-friendly environment.
The Iraqi security forces also lack effective intelligence gathering, and many of the Al-Qaeda attacks, including those on prisons, have proved that the group has better intelligence than the government forces.
US cooperation in rebuilding the Iraqi security forces has also been dwindling. Last month, Washington said it was downgrading a $200 million programme for Iraqi police training.
A report by the US State Department said that the move had come after Iraqi security officials had questioned whether the programme was useful, faulting it for being poorly organised and lacking in leadership.
The report concluded that Iraq's police force remained a vulnerable target for militants.
According to some analysts, Al-Qaeda has undergone fundamental restructuring in recent months that includes recruiting new fighters and changing its operational tactics.
A new generation of operatives seems to be more willing to engage in direct combat with Iraqi forces, as they have done in the jailbreaks and attacks on police checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the spike of violence in Iraq comes amid rising activities by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in other Middle Eastern countries. In neighbouring Syria, the group is fighting amid the ongoing unrest between the al-Assad regime and the opposition.
In Yemen, it has been expanding its operations against the government through raids on military bases at locations previously thought to be outside the group's control. Its fighters even briefly held some towns and cities amid the prevailing chaos.
In Egypt, extremist Islamist militants have sought to establish training camps in Sinai in recent months, carrying out attacks on lightly armed police forces. On Sunday, armed militants killed 16 Egyptian security forces at a checkpoint near the Israeli border and commandeered armoured vehicles they later used to storm into the neighbouring country.
Such developments seem to indicate closer cooperation and coordination between radical groups on the regional level, and they have raised fears that more operatives may be trained abroad and then sent into Iraq for further attacks.
On Monday, Al-Maliki said that Iraq was suffering from instability in the region, but discounted the possibility of the country's descending into chaos. However, in order to prevent this from happening, the Iraqi security forces will need to show progress in combating Al-Qaeda's new and more daring modes of operation.