BAGHDAD (AP) — A flurry of attacks blamed on al-Qaida defied claims by the U.S. and Iraq that they dealt the militants a severe blow by killing their two leaders last month.
Analysts say the violence — most of it against Shiite targets — is likely an attempt to re-ignite sectarian warfare, a tactic that could work if Sunnis lose faith in the political process and Iraqis once again turn to militias to protect them if the government cannot.
A combination of car bombs, suicide blasts and shootings across 10 cities from the north to the south convulsed Iraq Monday and killed 119 people, the deadliest day this year. Two more bombs killed five people Tuesday in a Baghdad neighborhood that was once a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked insurgents.
The attacks followed a string of victories announced by the government against the insurgents. In April, the two top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq were killed in a U.S.-Iraqi raid and dozens of other operatives were rolled up around the country, some even forced to make televised confessions.
Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the outgoing parliament’s defense committee, linked Monday’s strikes to the deaths of Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, describing them as revenge attacks against soft targets.
“To attack markets and factories is not a sign of strength or effectiveness, rather they are attempts to prove that al-Qaida still exists in Iraq after the big blows it received by Iraqi security forces,” he said.
By showing it can still carry out such attacks, al-Qaida is delivering the message it is still relevant and still a force in the country where many had begun to write it off.
“They are having a great deal of trouble recruiting,” said Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, a former Pentagon counterterror expert who now oversees military operations in eastern Baghdad.
He noted, however, an operation of such complexity would take at least a few weeks to put together. “I think you can very clearly say it was a coordinated effort,” he told The Associated Press.
From a tactical point of view, the most alarming thing was how deeply outside the Sunni heartland the attacks took place, especially in the southern port city of Basra, far from the Sunni insurgents’ territories.
The carnage came as political factions are still wrangling over the results of an election two months earlier that pitted the country’s incumbent Shiite prime minister against a Shiite challenger heavily backed by Sunnis.
“It is clear that the people behind Monday’s attacks want to ignite a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis and brings Iraq back to 2006,” said Sunni politician Abdel-Karim al-Sammarie, referring to the year Sunni and Shiite armed groups engaged in wholesale attacks on each other’s neighborhoods.
The period was a high point for al-Qaida in Iraq until its Sunni allies turned on it and ushered in a fragile period of comparative calm that culminated in the March elections, which it was hoped would put Iraq’s sectarian differences behind it.
Sunnis voted in droves for former Premier Ayad Allawi and his cross-sectarian platform, but no single group won a majority. The political paralysis has disillusioned many Iraqis — especially the Sunnis — as they watch conservative Shiites rebuild the same type of governing coalition they felt excluded them ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Juan Zarate, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the attacks are particularly dangerous coming at a time of political uncertainty.
“I think this type of activity would be happening anyway but it has a sharper edge to it in the context of the political vacuum … and the sense of vulnerability the Sunnis feel in the context of the wrangling,” he said.
The worry is that attacks like Monday’s could prompt ordinary Shiites to put their faith back into the militias for protection; there’s already been indications that the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is experiencing a resurgence after al-Qaida strikes.
“If we begin to see the population turning to illegal groups to protect the streets, that will be a signal that the bombings are having a strategic impact and threatening the viability of the state,” said Brett McGurk of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “That does not appear to be what we are seeing now but it remains the biggest risk to stability over the next six to 12 months.”
Sunni politician al-Sammarie does not see the Sunnis or Shiites abandoning Iraq’s government and flocking to al-Qaida or other extremist groups any time soon.
“The ordinary people are even more aware than the politicians themselves on the delicate and sensitive situation of which Iraq is in the midst.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.