In the 48 hours of Jan. 8-9, ten American soldiers were killed in Iraq. As the number of suicide bombings climbs, some carried out by females, so too do the assassinations and abductions of Sunni Arab tribal chiefs and heads of the local Sahwa-Awakening Councils set up by US forces to share the burden of combating al Qaeda at local and regional levels.
This reversal of a promising breakthrough is too new for hard figures, but the trend is clear.
US commanders in Iraq have reacted swiftly. Tuesday, Jan. 8, they lauched Operation Phantom Phoenix, a campaign to wipe out “the remnants of al Qaeda” in Iraq.
The operation’s name indicates acceptance of a battle against phantoms, some of them defectors from Iraqi insurgent groups allied with al Qaeda, who are weaving back and forth between combatant sides.
Wednesday, US forces conducted major air strikes against al Qaeda south of Baghdad.
On top of the rising numbers of casualties and attacks, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report US forces are facing grim new developments:
1. Our sources reveal here for the first time that the big Sunni Arab terrorist group, Jaish al Fataheen (Army of the Conquerors), defected last week from the Awakening Councils working with the Americans and crossed back to the al Qaeda front.
This is the first major indigenous insurgent group to go back on its coooperation with US forces against al Qaeda since the American “surge” strategy was introduced in Feb. 2007. It is undoubtedly a morale booster and an invaluable increment for al Qaeda at the moment the jihadists had begun to show early signs of recovery.
2. A second major Sunni insurgent group, the Islamic Army, notorious in the past for its involvement in high-profile kidnappings and barbaric beheadings, seems to be keeping a foot in both camps: A spokesman said this week: “The Islamic Army is adamant it will not make common cause with the the Sunni militias fighting al Qaeda with US support and will fight the Americans to the end.”
Another said: “The Islamic Army has nothing to do with the Awakening Councils.”
Clearly, while most of the estimated 70,000 Sunnis who opted to fight alongside the American Army or at least cooperate in the battle against al Qaeda are standing by their commitment, there is some erosion.
Al Qaeda is again flush with cash
3. Al Qaeda agents are suddenly flush with funds and spending big bucks to buy back the “loyalty” of some of the Iraqi insurgent bodies and Sunni tribal chiefs which made common cause with the US effort to vanquish and evict al Qaeda.
Sheikh Harith al-Dari, the influential head of Iraq’s Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), spoke revealingly in an interview with the Arabic al Hayat Tuesday Jan. 8 of a “similarity” between the actions of al Qaeda in Iraq and those of the Sahwa (Awakening) Councils.
He warned that Iraq’s marginalization would cause other countries to be marginalized and explained: “Many of those who have joined the Sahwa Councils have been members of al Qaeda, which they joined in the first place for money. When money was offered by the other side, they rushed there. Now it is al Qaeda’s turn again.”
The US command in Iraq has not yet discovered the source of al Qaeda’s new funds. For the last five months, its chiefs have been short of money to pay fighters.
Sheikh al-Dari, who was interviewed by the Saudi edition of al Hayat, and who has good connections in Saudi intelligence, may be wiser. In the past, non-government Saudi sources were known to have made donations to al Qaeda’s Iraq war chest.
4. US-led forces on the offensive have begun finding al Qaeda strongholds deserted, indicating they were tipped off by leaks from local Sunni contacts or collaborators in the Iraqi units participating in these operations.
This manifestation was conspicuous from 2004 to the end of 2006; it tapered off in 2007 when Sunni collaboration with the Americans began, and has recently revived.
5. A further sign of renewed al Qaeda infiltration of Iraqi security forces was brought to light on Jan. 5. The day after Christmas, an Iraqi soldier shot dead two American servicemen during a joint operation in northern Iraq and wounded three other US troops and an Iraqi aide.
The Iraqi investigation uncovered evidence of the killers’ ties with local “militant groups.” It was only one of a handful of known attacks by Iraqi security personnel on the American troops who train and fight with them.