Things Still Falling Apart in Iraq

by Patrick Brennan

Those looking for we’ve-lost-Iraq news have a surfeit these days. Yesterday, their government signed a $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia, purchasing attack helicopters and surface-to-air missiles, the latter of which they’ll happily not use to prevent Iranian Revolutionary Guard flights going through their territory to resupply Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, the FT reports that the Iraqi government signed a deal in June to sell fuel oil to Syria — only $14 million worth, but apparently at as much as a 50 percent discount (though some of that is probably because Syria is paying in hard currency). Syria is an oil producer itself, but like many countries, lacks refining capacity to turn it into useful fuel, so the Assad regime relies on imports to fuel itself. The Syrian state company which would transport the fuel, Syrtol, along with the rest of the Syrian oil industry, has been under sanctions since last year that prohibit any EU or U.S. companies from dealing with them (those sanctions were recently tightened, somehow, to put a squeeze on Iran, too).

And lastly, the AP reports on the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq:

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, officials say.

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. . . .

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. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.

“AQI is coming back,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, declared in an interview last month while visiting Baghdad. . . .

While there’s no sign of Iraq headed back toward sectarian warfare – mostly because Shiite militias are not retaliating to their deadly attacks – al-Qaida’s revival is terrifying to ordinary Iraqis. . . .

Each round of bombings and shootings the terror group unleashes across the country, sometimes killing dozens on a single day, fuels simmering public resentment toward the government, which has unable to curb the violence. And the rise of Sunni extremists who aim to overthrow a Shiite-linked government in neighboring Syria has brought a new level of anxiety to Iraqis who fear the same thing could happen in Baghdad.

“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.

In the vast desert of western Iraq near the Syrian border, security forces have discovered the remnants of recent insurgent training camps, said Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, commander of the army’s ground forces. An army raid last month on Iraq’s sprawling al-Jazeera region, which spans three provinces, found a 10-tent campsite littered with thousands of bullet shell casings, Ghaidan told The Associated Press in an interview. . . .

Intelligence indicates as many as 2,500 al-Qaida fighters are now living in five training camps in the 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. . . .

Iraqi and U.S. officials agree that Iraqi forces have improved their ability to gain terrorism intelligence from informants and prisoners. But they still struggle to intercept technical communications like al-Qaida’s cell phone calls, radio signals and Internet messages — one of the methods used by the U.S. military. “The Iraqi efforts to combat terrorists groups have been negatively affected by the U.S. pullout, but we are trying our best to compensate and develop our own capabilities,” [a spokesman for the government's counterterrorism forces] said.

Frederick and Kimberley Kagan’s cover story in the October 15 issue of National Review has more on these issues; they conclude that “American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence.”

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