Compare and Contrast Al Qaeda with The Iraqi Sectarian Groups and Account for Al Qaeda’s Supposed Decline in Iraq
The removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein when combined with sizeable numbers of American and British armed forces being present in Iraq certainly provided Al Qaeda with plenty of incentive to launch extensive terrorist operations in that country.
To begin with Al Qaeda had absolutely no influence or power in Iraq whilst Saddam Hussein remained in power. Al Qaeda did not like the secular socialist nature of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein whilst in turn Saddam Hussein refused to allow Al Qaeda to operate inside Iraq. He considered that Al Qaeda represented a serious threat to the stability of his Ba’arth party regime. The leadership of Al Qaeda did not risk operating in Iraq against the will of Saddam Hussein and instead focused its activities on attacking United States interests and targets in other places across the globe. It was the Al Qaeda attacks of 9 / 11 against the United States that ultimately led to both becoming involved in Iraq after 2003. Al Qaeda in 2003 began its involvement in Iraq virtually from scratch. Indigenous Iraqi sectarian groups had the practical advantage of already having a presence in Iraq.
Iraqi sectarian groups had theoretical advantages over Al Qaeda; they knew the attitudes and the views of the Iraqi people that they claimed to be fighting for. However the Iraqi sectarian groups were weakened by the persecution and the repression they had to endure at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’arth party regime. Saddam Hussein heavily suppressed the Iraqi sectarian groups, variations of which emerged after his removal from power, as he considered them to be a serious threat to his regime. Saddam Hussein was particularly active in repressing the Iraqi sectarian groups during the Iran-Iraq War, as well as in the wake of defeat in the Gulf War of 1990- 1991 with the failure of subsequent uprisings. The Ba’arth party was dominated by Sunni Muslims that although more interested in nationalism than religion they disliked Iraq’s Shia Muslim minorities as well as Kurdish separatists.
Iraqi sectarian groups that consist of radical Shia Muslim ideals were the most suppressed by Saddam Hussein as their actual and potential links to Iran were considered to be highly dangerous for the Sunni Muslims that made up the bulk of the Ba’arth party. It was not surprising that Saddam Hussein decided that the Shia Muslim sectarian groups were to be brutally treated. Saddam Hussein kept the Iraqi sectarian groups at bay, whilst they bitterly opposed his regime. Saddam Hussein and his Ba’arth party was just like Al Qaeda remains dominated by Sunni Muslims traditionally antagonist towards the radical Shia Muslims organisations that are amongst the most militant of the Iraqi sectarian groups.
Al Qaeda and the radical Shia organisations within the Iraqi sectarian groups share the aim of driving the United States coalition out of Iraq, yet for different motivations. Al Qaeda aimed to defeat the Americans in Iraq as part of its global struggle against them, a demoralising defeat on a par with the United States experience in Vietnam, or indeed the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s interest in Iraq is solely for as long as they can inflict damage upon the Americans. The Iraqi sectarian groups on the other hand aim to take control of Iraq to turn it into the country that suits their political, religious, and social ideological perspectives. The Iraqi sectarian groups are organisations that have a long-term interest in shaping the future of Iraq,
Al Qaeda does not. Arguably the differing ulterior motives of Al Qaeda in comparison to the Iraqi sectarian groups makes the latter more dangerous to the future stability of the present Iraqi government.
The decline of Al Qaeda in comparison with Iraqi sectarian groups can also be explained by changes in the strategies as well as the tactics employed by the American and other coalition forces. The Americans quite simply underestimated the size of the task ahead of them in Iraq. Perhaps if the Americans had understood the complex internal political, religious, and social structures within Iraq they could have prevented or at least reduced the impact of Al Qaeda and Iraqi sectarian groups. Al Qaeda’s position would not have declined in Iraq, as they would have been militarily and politically insignificant in the first place. The Bush administration assumed that Al Qaeda and other Iraqi sectarian groups could not influence the shape of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The United States led invasion of Iraq was supposed to bring about the creation of a country that embraced liberal democracy as well as being politically and socially stability to the country. Al Qaeda’s rise and subsequent decline in Iraq was arguably closely linked to the fact that the Iraqi state itself was rendered ineffective due to the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime. Al Qaeda’s decline in Iraq is linked with the re-emergence of an effective system of government within that state.
The slowness of the United States in restoring fully functioning government and administration in Iraq meant that Al Qaeda and Iraqi sectarian groups found that there was plenty of scope to cause trouble. Al Qaeda and the Iraqi sectarian groups found that there was initially many opportunities to attack the United States coalition forces inside Iraq, activities that prevented the development of meaningful liberal democracy and a secure regime in Baghdad. Al Qaeda had acted with great speed to get itself in the position to be able to attack the United States and coalition armed forces based inside Iraq therefore maximising the amount of trouble as well as insecurity that they could cause. The range, scale, and also the scope of Al Qaeda’s attacks in Iraq combined with the resulting bloodshed and carnage caught the Americans by surprise. Al Qaeda’s decline in Iraq was in many ways predictable once the United States and its coalition partners as well as the new Iraqi regime took steps to prevent attacks. Such steps included fortifying army barracks, government buildings, as well as Police stations. It was hoped that the full training of the new Iraqi armed forces and police units would accelerate the decline of both Al Qaeda as well as Iraqi sectarian groups.
Through a mixture of more useful defensive measures and offensive operations the United States and its partners have reduced the effectiveness of Al Qaeda units operating within Iraq itself. Thus far the United States led coalition armed forces in Iraq have not allowed Al Qaeda’s terrorist activities to drive them out of the country, the Bush administration not wishing to be humiliated in a similar way to the American exit from Vietnam in the 1970s. The terrain in Iraq in many ways makes it harder to sustain high levels of terrorist activity as it does in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have revived their activities against the Afghani government and NATO armed forces based there. Indeed the American government has committed extra firepower besides troop reinforcements to Iraq to defeat Al Qaeda. The United States would be unwilling to remove its armed forces from Iraq despite the Iraqi government having resumed full sovereignty in relation to defence and security matters.
Al Qaeda as well as the Iraqi sectarian groups were able to take considerable advantage of the instability unintentionally brought about by the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein. That advantage began to reduce once the United States started to have Iraq reconstructed, though the slow redevelopment meant Al Qaeda’s decline in Iraq was slow to start. It was the Iraqi sectarian groups that have apparently gained the most from the slow pace of reconstruction within Iraq itself. Although the United States led coalition forces had rapidly defeated the poorly equipped Iraqi armed forces, achieving victory within two months or so, that success further damaged the infrastructure of Iraq. The American and the British armed forces soon disarmed the remnants of the Iraqi army alongside the majority of the armed militias and in doing so inadvertently paved the way for insurgencies by Al Qaeda and the Iraqi sectarian groups.
The Iraqi army had kept Al Qaeda out of the country besides repressing Iraqi sectarian groups so its disbanding meant large areas of the country were not adequately controlled by the United States led coalition forces. Instead the Iraqi army was disbanded with an estimated 200,000 of them taking their weapons home and then joining the insurgency. With the considerable benefit of hindsight the United States and its allies could have averted the worst consequences of the insurgencies carried out by Al Qaeda and also the Iraqi sectarian groups by having the newly reformed Iraqi armed forces and police in place sooner than they actually did. The delays in arming, training, and eventually deploying the new Iraqi armed forces and police services arguably meant that it was harder to prevent terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and the more militant Iraqi sectarian groups taking place in Iraq. Al Qaeda’s decline in Iraq was partly caused by the eventual deployment of better-trained and equipped Iraqi armed forces and police services.
It is not altogether too surprising that Al Qaeda fighters and terrorists took a major share of the action in the initial insurgencies against the United States led coalition forces inside Iraq. Due to the way that Al Qaeda is organised and structured it was in a strong position to infiltrate its cells and units into Iraq rapidly. It also found new recruits available in Iraq partly as a consequence of years of anti-American propaganda by the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Al Qaeda cells and units were arguably in a stronger position than the Iraqi sectarian groups when it came down to their abilities to attack the United States led coalition based in Iraq as well as actively preventing regime stabilisation in the country. The Al Qaeda cells and units that went into Iraq in 2003 were at the start of the insurgencies were better equipped and trained to cause damage and devastation against the United States, the British, and also the new Iraqi government’s armed forces than Iraqi sectarian groups. Al Qaeda’s decline in Iraq in contrast to the Iraqi sectarian groups is related to the intensity of firepower concentrated against it. The concentration of force used against Al Qaeda has slowly but surely added momentum to that organisation’s decline in Iraq, just as the American government had hoped it would.
In 2003 the Al Qaeda cells and units fighting inside Iraq had a great deal of experience when it came down to conducting such insurgency and terrorist operations. For example Al Qaeda had fought in Afghanistan, Somalia as well as in the Sudan. As far as Osama Bin Laden was concerned the primary function of such insurgency and terrorist operations was to attack the United States and American interests whenever as well as wherever it could do so. The senior leadership of Al Qaeda had been able at various stages to do what it liked in Afghanistan and the Sudan, as their governments were generally sympathetic towards the anti-American and anti-Western objectives of Al Qaeda. The anarchic situation in Somalia had allowed Al Qaeda to get its cells and units inside that country to attack the United States forces sent there to restore order. The leadership of Al Qaeda is thus keen to send its cells and units anywhere it can inflict damage against the United States without genuinely wanting to help the populations of those countries. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had particularly strong links with Al Qaeda, and all of the 9 / 11 suicide bombers had actually attended Al Qaeda run training camps based in Afghanistan. The unavailability of these training camps has been a considerable advantage for the United States in its campaigns against Al Qaeda.
Of course the 9 / 11 attacks provoked the Bush administration’s war on terror and the American invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was quickly removed but not before Al Qaeda had successfully trained thousands of militants in its Afghani training camps. Therefore in 2003 Al Qaeda was able to use thousands of already trained fighters in Iraq, yet many of them have been killed in the subsequent fighting against the United States led coalition forces. The reduction in the number of its training camps has meant that Al Qaeda’s position in Iraq has declined because it cannot replace its heavy losses there. The Americans do retain the ability to reinforce their forces in Iraq, what it might lose is the continued willingness to do so over an indefinite period of time. On the other hand the vast majority of the Iraqi sectarian groups with the exception of the Kurdish groups and the remaining pro-Ba’arth party militias did not have thousands of fighters readily available for them to take advantage of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Al Qaeda was in many respects rightly regarded by the United States led coalition forces to be the most potent threat to security as well as the long-term military and political stability of Iraq after the successful invasion of 2003. For the United States led coalition forces the Iraqi sectarian groups did not seem to be such an obvious threat to the long-term security as well as the stability of Iraq, and they did not attack the Americans immediately. In some respects that belief was based on the willingness of the Kurds and the more moderate Shia groups to participate in the new Iraqi government. To a large extent the United States government and its military alongside the British based around Basra seriously underestimated the security threat posed by the more militant Iraqi sectarian groups. That serious underestimation is partly explained by the fact that the Americans and the British focused their attention upon dealing with the already active threat posed by Al Qaeda cells and units.
The United States led coalition forces even then failed to accurately anticipate the combined danger that both Al Qaeda and the more militant Iraqi sectarian groups represented to their plans of establishing stable liberal democracy in Iraq. Al Qaeda does not want stability in Iraq as that would be beneficial to the United States, whilst the more militant Iraqi sectarian groups do not want liberal democracy because they would not have sufficient levels of power and influence in the country. The United States and Britain had to a large extent expected the vast majority of the Iraqi people to be grateful to them for removing the regime of Saddam Hussein, not for Iraqis to join Al Qaeda and the more militant Iraqi sectarian groups.
Whilst Al Qaeda had quickly built up its strength and potency in Iraq its position was weakened and put into decline by the counter-terrorist actions by the United States led coalition forces. Initially such American and British counter-terrorist actions had found it very difficult to slow down the seemingly relentless ambushes, car bombings, and suicide bombings carried out by Al Qaeda cells and units. Ironically given Saddam Hussein’s previous antipathy towards Al Qaeda its cells and units found themselves co-operating with pro-Ba’arth party militias and Sunni Muslims alarmed by the position given to the Kurds and the moderate Shia groups in the new Iraqi government. The ambushes, car bombings, and suicide bombings carried out by Al Qaeda and Iraqi groups linked with it certainly caused casualties amongst United States led coalition forces. However it has been the civilian Iraqi population that has suffered the most in terms of people being injured and the total number of deaths. Many thousands of ordinary Iraqi people have been killed as a direct result of the attacks by Al Qaeda, which helps to partly explain declining support for it in Iraq. Al Qaeda though has never been bothered about its popularity or lack of it, and does not regard popularity as being of relevance when it comes down to the achievement of its objectives.
Al Qaeda had initially been successful in gaining recruits amongst Sunni Muslim communities inside Iraq, especially in areas where support for the Ba’arth party and Saddam Hussein had been strongest. The leadership of Al Qaeda had only wanted to recruit Sunni Muslims, and intended for its attacks to stir up sectarian divisions in Iraq in order to seriously undermine the stability of the new government, and perhaps to even engineer its overthrow. The initial intensity of the Al Qaeda attacks meant that United States led coalition forces had to stay for longer than was originally intended, as well as in greater numbers. Conversely staying in Iraq for longer has given the coalition forces longer to put Al Qaeda’s position there in a sharper rate of decline.
The more militant Iraqi sectarian groups might have taken longer to emerge as a potent threat to security and stability in Iraq yet they have arguably proved harder to suppress than Al Qaeda has been weakened in that same period of time. Al Qaeda have found it harder to reinforce its cells and units in Iraq whilst Iraqi sectarian groups especially those with connections to Iran have been able to maintain their military capabilities. United States suspicions about the Iranians supplying Iraqi sectarian groups have added to the strained relationship between Tehran and Washington DC. To put it in another way the American and the British with their other coalition partners have been able to take more effective counter-terrorist actions against Al Qaeda than the Iraqi sectarian groups because they have had better intelligence information about the former organisation. The more extensive intelligence information available to the United States led coalition forces has enabled to make them well directed and therefore more effective against Al Qaeda and its main leaders inside Iraq. The United States has been able to launch surgical air and missile strikes against senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq, which has markedly contributed to its apparent decline in both effectiveness and firepower. Al Qaeda’s decline is thus attributable to the success of the United States in attacking its cells and units operating inside Iraq.
To conclude the decline of Al Qaeda’s position in Iraq in comparison with Iraqi sectarian groups has various causes, and there are arguments as to whether it has actually happened or not. It could also be plausibly argued that Al Qaeda’s perceived decline in its fighting position in Iraq has indeed been exaggerated, and that Al Qaeda is actually an organisation that should never be underestimated or discounted completely. Its founder Osama Bin Laden for one is a firm believer that Al Qaeda’s struggle with the United States and its coalition partners will actually last for decades to come, and thus as an organisation Al Qaeda should not be overly concerned with short-term set backs in Iraq. The primary objective of Al Qaeda is to fight and inflict the maximum amount of damage upon the United States and its allies whenever and wherever possible via any means possible. Osama Bin Laden alongside other leaders within the organisation do not mind whether it is Al Qaeda itself or Iraqi sectarian groups that inflict damage and fatalities against the American and also the British forces serving in Iraq. Al Qaeda’s position and strength in Iraq has declined due to the death of its members in the fighting there and the reduction of the number of reinforcements available to its cells and units involved in the insurgencies.
Al Qaeda and the Iraqi sectarian groups have been involved in the insurgencies against the Iraqi government and the United States for different reasons. Al Qaeda’s fixation with weakening the United States can be contrasted with the simple desire of the Iraq sectarian groups to witness the Americans leave their country. The ongoing insurgencies in Iraq against the new Iraqi government as well as the United States led coalition forces has certainly about unusual alliances between Al Qaeda and some of the Iraqi sectarian groups, especially those groups that had links with Saddam Hussein and the Ba’arth party. Well directed American air and missile strikes alongside counter-terrorist campaigns on the ground might have weakened Al Qaeda’s own position inside Iraq yet the inability of the United States led coalition forces to suppress all of the Iraqi sectarian groups means those forces will have to continue fighting there. Future American administrations will have to consider whether or not to keep their forces in Iraq or whether to withdraw them. Premature troop withdrawal could seriously undermine the current Iraqi regime, whilst the continuing American involvement merely gains new recruits for the insurgency. Al Qaeda has been hurt by American and British successes in operations against it. Osama Bin Laden contends that American involvement will eventually and drastically weaken the United States economic and military power.
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