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In motley array of Iraqi foes, why does U.S. spotlight al-Qaida?

BAGHDAD: Inside the bloody kaleidoscope called Iraq, the list of enemies and allies is long, shifting and motley, running from "revolution brigades" and Baathists, to Salafists, secularists and suicidal zealots. But one group alone gets routinely tagged "Public Enemy No. 1" by the Americans.

Nine out of 10 times, when it names a foe it faces, the U.S. military names the group called al-Qaida in Iraq. U.S. President George W. Bush says Iraq may become an al-Qaida base to "launch new attacks on America." The U.S. ambassador here suggested this week al-Qaida might "assume real power" in Iraq if U.S. forces withdraw.

Critics say this is overblown, and possibly a diversion.

"Such speculation is unrealistic," Amer Hassan al-Fayadh, Baghdad University political science dean, said of the U.S. statements.

Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, strong Kurdish ethnic minority, secularist Sunni Muslims and others would suppress any real power bid by the fringe Sunni religious extremists of al-Qaida, al-Fayadh said.

"The people who are fighting al-Qaida in Iraq are the Sunnis themselves," he noted.

He was referring to a movement among some Sunni insurgent and tribal groups, beginning in the western province of Anbar and now developing in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, who have turned against the mass-casualty terror tactics of erstwhile ally al-Qaida, held responsible for spectacular bombing attacks, especially against Shiites.

Since Iraqis rose up against the U.S. occupation in 2003, the insurgency has spawned a long roster of militant groups — the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Islamic Army in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah, Mujahedeen Army, the Mahdi Army, among others — drawing on loyalists of the ousted, Sunni-dominated Baathist regime, other nationalists, Islamists, tribal groups and militant Shiites.

Some 30 groups now claim responsibility for attacks against U.S. and government targets, said Ben Venzke, head of the Virginia-based IntelCenter, which tracks such statements for the U.S. government.

Despite this proliferation of enemies, the U.S. command's news releases on American operations focus overwhelmingly on al-Qaida.

During the first half of May, those releases mentioned al-Qaida 51 times, against just five mentions of other groups. When other groups tangle with U.S. forces, they're often described as "al-Qaida-linked," mainly those in the Islamic State of Iraq, an alliance that is dominated by the terror network. If not, they're tagged "criminals," "secret cell networks," or with similar nonspecific names.

In addition, in a year-to-year comparison, the number of U.S. military releases mentioning al-Qaida almost doubled, from 161 in 2005-2006 to 306 in 2006-2007. Even accounting for an increased number of command reports overall, the al-Qaida releases rose by 40 percent.

Why is the international al-Qaida network, which most stirs American fears, being highlighted?

"There's a great deal of focus on al-Qaida because they're Public Enemy No. 1. Simple as that," said command spokesman Col. Steven Boylan.

"One of the missions is to go after the al-Qaida networks. If we are focusing on them, it stands to reason they are going to be mentioned."

Back in the U.S., some see more manipulative motives.

Bush's warning about al-Qaida and Iraq "serves mostly to buttress the administration's claim that Iraq's problems are the work of outsiders, and not the result of the administration's mismanagement of the occupation and internal Iraqi factionalism," said Steven Simon, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The University of Michigan's Juan Cole questions how strong the links are between international al-Qaida and the local Iraqi variety, which he describes as Salafists — fundamentalist Sunnis — "who style themselves al-Qaida."

In rebuttal, the White House cites U.S. intelligence reports and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's own statements suggesting Iraq could be used as a launchpad for international attacks.

"They'll just say al-Qaida," Venzke said of the U.S. command, "and the media frequently simplify it to that level because they think nobody thinks there are other groups."

Terrorism analyst Lydia Khalil, of Washington's Jamestown Foundation research group, said something more complex may also be going on.

"I talked to a lot of guys over there (U.S. officials in Iraq) and they are aware that the majority of fighters are not al-Qaida," said this former U.S. political adviser in Baghdad.

Some of these other groups are in on-off negotiations with the U.S.-allied government and may be "moving toward the political process," Khalil said.

"That would be thrown off balance if the U.S. military put an emphasis on them," she said, rather than on a less potentially accommodating adversary — al-Qaida.


Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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