By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
The Sunni terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq has rebounded in strength in recent months and appears to be launching a concerted effort to cripple the Iraqi government as US troops withdraw, Iraqi and American officials say.
The group asserted responsibility for four powerful bombings that targeted five government buildings in Baghdad in August and October - the deadliest attacks directed at the government in more than six years of war. Authorities say al-Qaida in Iraq intends to carry out additional high-profile attacks in the months ahead and is attempting to regain its foothold in former strongholds just outside the capital.
The strategy represents a shift in tactics from the group's efforts to kindle the kind of sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of anarchy in 2007. The group suffered major setbacks after the "surge" in US troops to Iraq that year, but American and Iraqi officials say that al-Qaida in Iraq has found more recent success by enlisting other groups in an effort aimed at undermining elections scheduled for January and the formation of a new government.
Although the group has lost many top leaders, funding sources and popular support, it stands to gain from a deeply divided political establishment, growing Sunni resentment toward the Shiite-led government, disjointed Iraqi security agencies and the diminishing ability of US forces to engage in combat operations in Iraq.
"They're still capable of conducting singular high-profile attacks," Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, said. "Those are very difficult to prevent."
What was once a foreign-led terrorist organization is now a mostly Iraqi network of small, roving cells that continue to rely on the flow of fighters and weapons smuggled through the Syrian border, albeit at a slower rate, US and Iraqi officials say.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's chief of intelligence and investigations, said Iraqi officials suspect the Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 bombings, which targeted the Foreign, Justice and Finance ministries, among other entities, were planned at a secret meeting in Zabadani, a city in southwestern Syria, close to the Lebanese border. He said al-Qaida in Iraq leaders met with former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party on July 30 to chart out a new strategy.
"They made a plan to carry out major joint operations in central Baghdad targeting important buildings," Kamal said in an interview. The attacks killed more than 250 people and wounded more than 1,000.
The blasts were deeply damaging to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who just weeks earlier had trumpeted the readiness of his security forces to maintain order as most US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities.
The government announced the arrest of former members of the Baath Party and accused Syria of harboring terrorist cells. Syrian officials have said they do not condone attacks on Iraqi soil.
Al-Qaida in Iraq came to control large parts of the country between 2005 and 2008. The group is the largest within the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that seeks to turn Iraq into a dogmatic Islamic republic run by Sunnis.
The US troop surge in 2007 and the creation of American-funded Sunni paramilitary groups left al-Qaida in Iraq reeling, as scores of its leaders were killed or detained.
But after the provincial election in Iraq this year, al-Qaida leaders offered an olive branch to other Sunni extremist groups, issuing a message that even went as far as extending "a hand of forgiveness" to those who worked with the Americans.
Some groups responded favorably to the overture, but there is little evidence that al-Qaida in Iraq's membership has swelled significantly, said Rita Katz, who runs the SITE Intelligence Group, a Bethesda, Md.-based organization that analyzes extremist organizations. It does not appear that Sunni paramilitary groups that once worked with the United States have rejoined the insurgency, even though many have been angered that the United States has handed responsibility for them to the Shiite-led government.
US officials said the recent bombings were a last-ditch attempt by a marginalized, weakened group to regain relevance.
"My own personal analysis is there are some dispersed groups trying to bond for some short-term common interest," said Col. Mark Stammer, a brigade commander in Anbar province, where recent attacks have been blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq.
Iraqi and American officials worry about a rise in attacks in the run-up to the elections, scheduled for Jan. 18.
The weeks and months after the vote could be particularly critical because key security jobs could go unfilled indefinitely as elected officials divvy up ministries and major posts. The government was virtually paralyzed after the 2005 election amid squabbling over top jobs - an impasse that coincided with an increase in violence.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.
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