U.S. and Iraqi Forces Deal Major Blow to al Qaeda in Iraq

April 20, 2010

Iraqi and American security forces scored a significant victory yesterday against al Qaeda in Iraq, killing two of the group’s chiefs.  The deaths of the Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, during a joint operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces, were in U.S. Commander General Ray Odierno’s words, “potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”  Such operational success demonstrates the growing effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces.  As Vice President Biden said yesterday, “Iraqis led this operation, and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed following their capture of a senior AQI leader last month.”  The operation demonstrates the viability of the Obama administration’s approach, which emphasizes transitioning responsibility to Iraqis.

While yesterday’s operation against al Qaeda in Iraq was an undoubted success, Iraq’s challenges are far from resolved.  For instance, the announcement of a recount in Baghdad of the votes cast in the recent parliamentary elections could introduce new instability into the government formation process.  In addition, the revelation that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s personal military office had been running a secret prison for Sunni men, along with allegations that those men were subject to brutal treatment, may exacerbate sectarian tensions.  Ultimately however, these and other persistent challenges are best addressed by Iraqis, who do not want heavy handed U.S. interference.  This dovetails well with the Administration’s withdrawal policy, which remains on track.  As General Odierno reaffirmed yesterday, the decision to reduce U.S. troops to 50,000 by the end of August remains right “on plan.” A decreasing American military presence, buttressed by Iraqis taking the lead in managing their own affairs, will allow for both countries to take up the more important task of shaping the parameters of a long-term strategic relationship.

The killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leaders is a blow to extremism and a milestone for the Iraqi Security Forces. “Iraqi security forces killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, the militant group responsible for a string of bloody recent bombings there, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, dealing a setback to an organization that once brought the country to the brink of civil war,” reported the Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, “the al Qaeda affiliate’s operational head inside Iraq,” and Omar al-Baghdadi, a shadowy figure said to be the “group’s spiritual leader” were killed in a joint operation conducted by U.S. and Iraqi forces.  While the Journal notes that the deaths or arrests of Messrs. Masri and Baghdadi have been reported before, this was also “the first time U.S. officials have joined in reporting the two men’s deaths.” According to the Washington Post, though officials were keen to caution that this was not the end of extremism in Iraq, there are reasons to suspect the insurgents’ deaths will have an impact.  Al Qaeda in Iraq “… no longer has a steady supply of foreign funding, grass-roots support, or scores of foreign fighters willing to travel to Iraq to carry out suicide bombings,” making it likely that the deaths of Masri and Baghdadi will “weaken the group further.”

Addressing reporters yesterday, Vice President Biden, the Obama administration’s point man on Iraq, touted the operation against al Qaeda in Iraq as a sign that Iraqi security forces are increasingly in the lead.  “[E]qually important, in my view, is this action demonstrates the improved security strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces,” said the Vice President, pointing out that “Iraqis led this operation, and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed following their capture of a senior AQI leader last month.”  Biden called the counterterrorism operation “the culmination of a lot of cooperation and very hard work by Iraqi and U.S. forces to degrade AQI over the past several months and years.”  U.S. Commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno confirmed the thrust of the Vice President’s remarks, explaining how “over the last 60 days or so, we have been able to conduct a number of operations that have gone after several levels of the al Qaeda network,” operations which culminated in the deaths of Masri and Baghdadi. Odierno added that while “[t]here are still some mid-level leaders who will probably attempt to reinvigorate al Qaeda here,” U.S. and Iraqi forces will work to “suppress that and continue to degrade al Qaeda network here.” [WSJ, 4/20/10. Washington Post, 4/20/10. Vice President Biden, 4/19/10. General Ray Odierno, via CNN, 4/19/10]

New challenges emerge and old ones remain, but they can only be resolved by Iraqis.  While the joint U.S.-Iraqi operation against Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was a positive sign for the development of the Iraqi Security Forces, there were also troubling reports that came out this week demonstrating that many challenges remain for Iraq. As the Washington Post reported, Iraqi election officials announced that there would be a manual recount of the parliamentary election votes cast in Baghdad.  According to the Post, “The recount is all but certain to delay the formation of the next government by weeks, if not more,” a possibility that “concerns U.S. officials, because they want a new government in place by the time the American troop level drops to 50,000 by Sept. 1.”  In addition, the L.A. Times reported on a secret prison for Sunni men under the control of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a revelation that could heighten sectarian tensions.  According to the Times, “Hundreds of Sunni men disappeared for months into a secret Baghdad prison under the jurisdiction of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s military office, where many were routinely tortured until the country’s Human Rights Ministry gained access to the facility, Iraqi officials say.  The men were detained by the Iraqi army in October in sweeps targeting Sunni groups in Nineveh province, a stronghold of the group al Qaeda in Iraq and other militants in the north… The alleged brutal treatment of prisoners at the facility raised concerns that the country could drift back to its authoritarian past.”

George Washington Professor and Center for a New American Security Fellow Marc Lynch explained last month that there remain a number of other deeper and unresolved challenges: “Arab-Kurdish conflicts over Kirkuk, the distribution of oil revenues and contracts, and power in mixed areas remain exceedingly dangerous. Refugees and the internally displaced continue to live in limbo, with few prospects of return and reintegration…corruption, ineffective state institutions, unemployment and an array of social and economic problems continue to fester.”  But, while some analysts seize on these challenges to argue for intervention by U.S. forces or diplomats, Lynch observed that “…they miss the wider picture of an Iraqi public which no longer wants or needs their supposedly stabilising role.”  The Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis and Peter Juul made a similar point, cautioning that “[o]ne of the worst mistakes the United States can make at this stage as Iraqis continue to reassert control over their own affairs is to get in the way of that process.” [LA Times, 4/19/10. Washington Post, 4/20/10. Marc Lynch, 3/25/10. Brian Katulis & Peter Juul, 3/5/10]

Withdrawal of U.S. Forces – which remains on track – is the best vehicle for building a long-term, strategic relationship with Iraq and its people.  General Odierno explained yesterday that the U.S. is on target for withdrawal, saying “I feel very comfortable with us going down to 50,000 as the Iraqi security forces significantly continue to increase their capacities and capabilities.”  In an interview with Fox News this weekend, Odierno went into greater detail: “…we are on target to be at 50,000 by August. We will still – we will have formations here that are able to train combat formations. We’ll still be able to conduct counterterrorism operations. We’ll still be able to support provincial reconstruction teams.  We’re at about 95,000 today, Chris, so I – our plans are intact. I feel very comfortable with our plan. And unless something unforeseen and disastrous happens, I fully expect us to be at 50,000 by the 1st of September.”

The Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis explains why the withdrawal must take place, pointing out that “Iraq’s leaders demanded a clear timeline for troop withdrawals in its negotiations with the Bush administration, and there are strong political actors in Iraq who are demanding an end to what they view as an ‘occupation.’”  Katulis adds that, “Not moving forward with the planned troop drawdown because of protracted political negotiations in Baghdad makes little strategic sense for broader U.S. national security.”  Withdrawal is also the best means of solidifying a strategic relationship with the Iraqi people.  As Marc Lynch wrote recently, withdrawal “doesn’t mean ignoring Iraq.”  What it does mean, according to Lynch, is “moving to develop a normal, constructive strategic relationship with the new Iraqi government, with the main point of contact the Embassy and the private sector rather than the military, and adhering in every way possible to the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and to the drawdown timeline.” [General Ray Odierno, CNN, 4/19/10. General Ray Odierno, Fox News, 4/18/10. Brian Katulis, CAP, 4/12/10.Marc Lynch, 3/8/10]

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