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Another 39 – and rising – have been killed in Iraq following a co-ordinated bombing campaign across the country. Bombings took place in Karbala, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Hillah, Mahmoudiyah and several other towns. Al-Qaeda and related Sunni militant groups are almost certainly responsible for these bombings, which come as Baghdad prepares to host next week’s Arab League summit.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is a larger franchise than al-Qaeda central in Pakistan, and carries out over 30 attacks a week (with a large strike every four to six weeks). Maj. Gen. Jeﬀrey Buchanan, the American military’s top spokesman in Iraq, has stated that between 800 – 1,000 militants remain in AQI, ‘from terrorists involved in operations to media to ﬁnance to ﬁghters.’ It is currently more active than any other al-Qaeda franchise, with fears that an Iraqi brigade may now be operating in Syria.
AQI is being allowed the space to operate at present because of a Sunni population resentful of Shiite repression emanating out of Baghdad and less willing to clamp down on the insurgency. Fix the politics in Baghdad and you remove a lot of the support for militancy. However, unfortunately the politics in Baghdad are not going to be fixed any time soon, which leaves a big dilemma.
While it is wreaking a bloody trail through Iraq, at present, AQI does not appear to have the infrastructure to target the West – at least present. However, suppose that changes – perhaps due to events in neighbouring Syria, perhaps if the US crackdown in Yemen begins to make it look less appealing – and AQI’s capacity allows its scope to become more global. What would the American response be if the most powerful and dangerous al-Qaeda franchise was to develop once again in Iraq?
If AQI begins to broaden its scope on US interests abroad, America’s counterterrorism policy options are worryingly limited. For a plethora of obvious (and sensible) reasons, there will be no drone strikes in Iraq a la Yemen – not least of which is that troop withdrawal in Iraq meant bases of operation for US Special Forces and its drone network were removed. It’s also safe to say that troops are not going to be sent back into Baghdad any time soon and there is only so much the CIA would be able to do. There are some diplomatic options, but it seems that America would essentially be hoping that Tehran, Damascus and Baghdad would try and destroy al-Qaeda on its behalf. That is is pretty much the definition of a disaster waiting to happen.