As the political turmoil in Iraq continues, insurgent groups are taking the opportunity to escalate their attacks and further destabilise the country. Their aim is as simple as it is deadly: to stir sectarian tensions and win back territory.On 21 July, the Islamic State of Iraq announced a new campaign, Operation Breaking Walls, aimed at winning back territory previously lost to the US and Iraqi forces. The jihadists are seeking to undermine the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and reach out to the Sunni population.
July has been the deadliest month in Iraq in two years. The recent al-Qaida surge coincided with the month of Ramadan, and they vowed to wage a “sacred offensive”. According to AFP, the death toll in Ramadan reached 411.
When jihadists began pouring into Iraq before and during the US-led invasion in 2003, they established themselves mainly in the western Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq where the local population initially tolerated them. However, before the US decided to surge in 2007 it began negotiating with tribal leaders and encouraged them to fight al-Qaida – whose excesses the tribes could no longer stand.
This budding movement, later called the Awakening, was crucial in driving back jihadists in western Iraq and allowed the US to focus more on combating the violence in and around Baghdad. Now that US forces have withdrawn and the political situation has deteriorated, al-Qaida is trying to change the balance of power again.
Recent propaganda videos shed ample light on its modus operandi. A video uploaded in late June shows graphic military operations against the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni Awakening tribesmen who continue to stand in the way of the jihadists. Dressed in civilian clothes and armed with silenced weapons, the jihadists make swift work of their killings and executions. The checkpoints are overwhelmed in the surprise attacks and security forces have little time to respond.
Al-Qaida propaganda videos are laced with typical sectarian rhetoric. The Shia are referred to as a “disease” to the Islamic world that has no cure besides death. Al-Qaida asserts that the Sunni politicians who work for the Shia government have failed to deliver anything to their constituents. To further this narrative, the video includes cunningly selective clips of Iraqi politicians.
In one clip, Tariq al-Hashemi, the fugitive vice-president, complains that the Sunni tribes have been left stranded by the Americans. In another clip, Sunni politician, Rafi’ al-Isawi, warns that if the political process in Iraq fails, the politicians will be replaced by al-Qaida – exactly what the jihadists want. Prominent Sunni politicians such as Hashemi, deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlak and parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi are labelled “traitors” who were deceived by the Shia into joining the national unity government but given no real authority.
Perhaps more interestingly, the video shows a softer side to al-Qaida in Iraq. While jihadists who engage in gruesome beheadings and indiscriminate car bombings are not renowned for their mercy and compassion, they are nonetheless engaged in a campaign to win hearts and minds. The jihadists surprise tribal members of the Awakening in late-night visits to their compounds. Instead of killing them on the spot (which they would normally do) the jihadists warn them and hand out “repentance” notices. The jihadists give the tribesman one more chance in life. They are told to acknowledge that they have “left Islam” (a crime punishable by death) and to repent.
Al-Qaida does not necessarily want the fighters to switch sides, only to turn over their weapons and quit their jobs. There are no more chances after that. They later confront tribesmen who were previously warned by al-Qaida but who broke their oath. They are placed face down on the floor and quietly executed.
One of the more brazen attacks in Baghdad was the targeting of the counter-terrorism bureau on 31 July. Two car bombs exploded near the bureau and jihadists then stormed the building. Though Iraqi security forces quickly surrounded the building, the attack illustrates that the jihadists still have the capability to strike even the most sensitive of locations in the capital.
Another propaganda video, uploaded in mid-August, demonstrates just how sophisticated the jihadi operations are. They have live-fire training exercises in broad daylight and rehearse their attacks on security targets. In one of their operations, they storm the city of Haditha, in the Anbar province, in disguise and go from checkpoint to checkpoint killing the security forces.
The al-Qaida militants wear interior ministry “Emergency Response” uniforms and casually drive around the city in official Swat vehicles. The jihadists are heavily armed, use night-vision goggles and sophisticated communications equipment. Though the group is a mix of both Iraqi and foreign Arab jihadists, the men who use the walkie-talkies speak in an Iraqi accent. They understand, and copycat, the security “speech” in Iraq. The al-Qaida militants are so well disguised as members of the Iraqi security forces that at one point they even mistook each other for the real deal. In a dramatic “friendly fire” incident, jihadists shouted at each to stand down – not realising they were on the same side. Two of them were killed.
Iraq seems to be stumbling heavily when it comes to the security gains made over the past few years, but ultimately efforts to curb al-Qaida must rely heavily on a political solution to ensure the jihadists have no space to operate. If the Sunnis of Iraq, who continue to feel marginalised by the government, acquiesce to al-Qaida then the latter’s ambitions of winning back territory and plunging the country further into chaos may be achieved.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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