The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months, leading some generals to advocate a declaration of victory over the group, which the Bush administration has long described as the most lethal U.S. adversary in Iraq.
But as the White House and its military commanders plan the next phase of the war, other officials have cautioned against taking what they see as a premature step that could create strategic and political difficulties for the United States. Such a declaration could fuel criticism that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war in which U.S. combat forces should not be involved. At the same time, the intelligence community, and some in the military itself, worry about underestimating an enemy that has shown great resilience in the past.
“I think it would be premature at this point,” a senior intelligence official said of a victory declaration over AQI, as the group is known. Despite recent U.S. gains, he said, AQI retains “the ability for surprise and for catastrophic attacks.” Earlier periods of optimism, such as immediately following the June 2006 death of AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. air raid, not only proved unfounded but were followed by expanded operations by the militant organization.
There is widespread agreement that AQI has suffered major blows over the past three months. Among the indicators cited is a sharp drop in suicide bombings, the group’s signature attack, from more than 60 in January to around 30 a month since July. Captures and interrogations of AQI leaders over the summer had what a senior military intelligence official called a “cascade effect,” leading to other killings and captures. The flow of foreign fighters through Syria into Iraq has also diminished, although officials are unsure of the reason and are concerned that the broader al-Qaeda network may be diverting new recruits to Afghanistan and elsewhere.
This is what they called in olden days, “good news.”