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Iraq Attacks Are Worst Insurgent Violence in Years

July 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Monday's deadly attacks in Iraq come just as tension between Sunnis and Shiites has increased and just after al-Qaida leaders declared they intend to free prisoners and assassinate court officials. Margaret Warner talks to Al-Jazeera's Jane Arraf in Baghdad about what the attacks mean for the possible resurgence of al-Qaida.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on all of this, I spoke to Al-Jazeera’s Jane Arraf in Baghdad.

Welcome, Jane.

What do today’s attacks, the targets, the locations, tell us about the reemergence of this Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq?

JANE ARRAF, Al-Jazeera: Well, basically, Margaret, it tells us that they have a pretty good reach, because if you look at those targets and the sheer scope of them, the number of them, the fact that they do appear to have some organizational ability to coordinate, it tells us that they are indeed still there.

Now, the targets are pretty much the same as they have been. They’re military, they’re police, they’re Shias, ordinary people. But, essentially, al-Qaida says it is coming back. And it says it’s coming back in those areas where some of the attacks were today.

Those include areas outside of Baghdad in what was called the Baghdad Belt, which was traditionally an al-Qaida stronghold and a lifeline for al-Qaida, for its attacks in the capital. Others were in Kirkuk, part of the disputed territories. What they really seem to be doing is taking advantage of the chaos that still exists in a lot of places in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And what are its aims, its objectives?

JANE ARRAF: It aims to launch, to create an Islamic state, a center of the caliphate.

And one of the capitals would be in Baghdad. It repeats that again in the latest statement that we’ve heard. It also wants to take advantage of the sectarian tension that still exists. And while Iraq is nowhere near the sectarian violence that it was a few years ago — it’s really evolved quite a lot since then — there still is tension there.

It wants to foster civil war again. The targets have been predominantly Shia targets, apart from the security forces. They do aim at Shias. And they aim at pilgrims. And they’re hoping to restart the sectarian violence by provoking Shia militias to come out and fight them again in the streets, the same way they did a few years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what is the latest state of play with the government among these rival groups, the Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds? Is this uptick in violence believed to be related to that?

JANE ARRAF: When you talk to people in the street, they genuinely believe it.

And even more disturbing than believing that the chaos that exists in government helps foster this climate where al-Qaida can flourish, they actually believe that political parties are behind some of the violence. But, certainly, the political paralysis doesn’t help. We’re talking about a government that has no defense minister. It has no interior minister.

The main leaders don’t even talk to each other. There’s an active campaign to unseat the prime minister. I recently spoke with the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, and he held out very little hope for reconciliation with Prime Minister Maliki. In fact, they are talking on both sides about an escalation of tension. There are a lot of problems here. And it certainly doesn’t help create — to create the climate where security is flourishing.

MARGARET WARNER: And how capable are the Iraqi security forces now, with the U.S. gone? I mean, if al-Qaida in Iraq delivers on its threat to keep increasing the level of attacks, can Iraqi forces handle it?

JANE ARRAF: That is really the question.

And when we’re talking about handling things like car bombs or suicide bombs, it’s impossible to actually prevent them. So, really, the way that they have been able to make gains against al-Qaida has been through intelligence-gathering, about finding out how these networks are operate and taking down some of the main operators, cutting off their finances, disrupting their communications.

That was one of the things that Iraqi forces were able to do quite well when the American forces were here. When the Americans left, they left. They took away their technology. They took away their help and intelligence-gathering.

And Iraq seems to have paid a price for it. They have lost a lot of their ability to basically gather and assess intelligence. And that has been one of the main ways that they have had to fight al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, how is the turmoil in Syria affecting Iraq’s security?

JANE ARRAF: Officials here are very worried.

Now, that was part of the reason that they essentially closed the border to Syrian refugees. They said they couldn’t handle refugees coming across the western border because they couldn’t care for them, but also, according to the government spokesmen, they were worried about the security implications.

When there’s security vacuums along the borders, you open up those borders and you don’t know what will happen. And Syria itself has said that al-Qaida exists there. We have seen some evidence of the hallmarks of the kind of operations that they normally engage in. So, it does seem clear that al-Qaida has relocated in some sense to Syria.

Now, the Iraqis are afraid that they will come back across the border and create the kind of conflict and dissension and sectarian fighting that they managed to do so well just a few years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Jane Arraf of Al-Jazeera, thank you for joining us.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you.