Al-Qaida making comeback in Iraq, officials say
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BAGHDAD -- Al-Qaida is rebuilding in Iraq and has set up training camps for insurgents in the nation's western deserts, as the extremist group seizes on regional instability and government security failures to regain strength.
Iraq has seen a jump in al-Qaida attacks over the last 10 weeks, and officials believe most of the fighters are former prisoners who have either escaped from jail or were released by Iraqi authorities for lack of evidence after the U.S. military withdrawal last December. Many are said to be Saudi or from Sunni-dominated Gulf states.
During the war and its aftermath, U.S. forces, joined by allied Sunni groups and later by Iraqi counterterror forces, managed to beat back al-Qaida's Iraqi branch. But now, Iraqi and U.S. officials say, the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago -- from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. It is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks a week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.
"AQI is coming back," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared in an interview last month while visiting Baghdad.
The new growth of al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq, is not entirely unexpected. Last November, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, predicted "turbulence" ahead for Iraq's security forces. But he doubted that Iraq would return to the days of widespread fighting between Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaida, that brought the Islamic country to the brink of civil war.
On Tuesday, a series of bombings and drive-by shootings killed six people, including three soldiers and a judge, in Baghdad and the former al-Qaida strongholds of Mosul and Tal Afar, in northern Iraq.
Each round of bombings and shootings the terror group unleashes across the country, sometimes killing dozens in a single day, fuels simmering public resentment toward the government, which has been unable to curb the violence.
"Nobody here believes the government's claims that al-Qaida is weak and living its last days in Iraq," said Fuad Ali, 41, a Shiite who works for the government. "Al-Qaida is much stronger than what the Iraqi officials are imagining. The terrorist group is able to launch big attacks and free its members from Iraqi prisons, and this indicates that al-Qaida is stronger than our security forces. The government has failed to stop the increasing number of victims who were killed since the start of this year."
Intelligence indicates as many as 2,500 al-Qaida fighters are now living in five training camps in Iraq's sprawling al-Jazeera area, according to two other senior Iraqi security officials. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, estimated that only 700 al-Qaida fighters were in Iraq when U.S. troops withdrew. Six months earlier, in June 2011, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the U.S. Senate that 1,000 al-Qaida remained in Iraq.
The U.S. withdrew its military as required under a 2008 security agreement negotiated during the White House administration of then-President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama considered leaving several thousand troops in Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal deadline. But negotiations disintegrated last fall, when Baghdad refused to extend legal immunities to any U.S. combat troops remaining in Iraq, meaning they could have been prosecuted for defending themselves if under attack.
Republicans blame Mr. Obama, a Democrat, for failing to push Baghdad harder or to find a compromise that would have let U.S. troops remain in Iraq as a safeguard against al-Qaida and deteriorating Mideast stability.
On Monday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused the White House of wasting U.S. gains made in Iraq. Mr. Obama replied Monday, saying he had fulfilled a campaign pledge to end the Iraq war. "Gov. Romney said it was tragic to end the war in Iraq. I disagree," Mr. Obama said in a campaign speech. "We cannot afford to go back to a foreign policy that gets us into wars with no plan to end them."
There now are about 260 active-duty troops and civilian Defense Department employees who have diplomatic immunity to remain in Iraq to train security forces on military equipment Baghdad bought from the United States. Among them are 28 U.S. special operations forces who train Iraqi counterterror soldiers in the capital. But money for their posts runs out at year's end unless Congress agrees to restore it.
First Published October 10, 2012 12:00 am