Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Iraq's changing insurgent threat

Baghdad security checkpoint
Security checks in Baghdad have been beefed up following a string of attacks claimed by a group linked to al-Qaeda

By Rob Walker
BBC News, Iraq

Mullah Nazim al-Juburi knows a lot about the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. He says the group has attempted to kill three of his brothers.

Suicide bombers have also made three attempts on his own life.

"I have more than four hundred wounds in my body," he says.

Mullah Nazim was once a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Mullah Nazim al-Juburi
They're saying: we're still here, we're still strong
Mullah Nazim al-Juburi
Former al-Qaeda member

But like many others among the Sunni minority who first supported or sympathised with the group, he eventually turned against it.

"I came to realise it is no longer interested in the Sunnis of Iraq."

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is much weaker than it was before the surge by US forces in 2007. It has less money, fewer fighters, and less public support.

But since August, the group has been blamed for three devastating attacks that have killed and injured hundreds.

The targets have been mainly symbols of the Iraqi state.

The American military here says this is a sign that insurgents have changed strategy.

Before, they frequently targeted the Shia majority, trying to provoke sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Now their focus is on the government.

Attacks every day

"Al-Qaeda is sending a message to the Iraqi government," said Mullah Nazim.

"They're saying: we're still here, we're still strong. And they're sending a message to the outside world: this is not a trustworthy government, it is not worthy of outside help."

It is not just the periodic devastating bombings that Iraqis are afraid of.

The cameras only work for five hours a day and sometimes they break down
Hassan Khalifah
Baghdad Operations Centre

Almost every day, there are car bombs, assassinations or other attacks.

"It's an enemy that's changing every time they attack," said Major General Richard Rowe, director of the US military's Iraq Training and Advisory Mission.

"They have changed the platform they use, the size of explosive capability. They have adjusted where they can get to."

The Iraqi government is responding. The BBC was given rare access to the Baghdad Operations Centre.

This is where the Iraqi security forces are trying to co-ordinate an increasingly hi-tech approach to fighting the insurgency.

Rows of men in smart green uniforms sit glued to banks of screens. Footage streams in from CCTV cameras across the capital.

But some of the basics are still missing.

"The cameras only work for five hours a day and sometimes they break down," said Hassan Khalifah, the second in command.

For the US, it is crucial that Iraqi forces are able to maintain security when American troops leave at the end of 2011.

As part of their withdrawal strategy, they are training members of the Iraqi army and police.

Deep divisions

Both the government and the US military say progress is being made.

"What we are seeing is the security forces being effective and beginning to be able to push these attack locations away from the areas they are trying to protect," said General Rowe.

Baghdad Operations Centre
Iraqi security is becoming increasingly hi-tech

He believes that it will take time though to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq and the other insurgent groups.

"It's easy to round up the people who would blow themselves up," he says.

But it is also necessary to "go against the supply system, against the financial system, against the leadership that believes that this is the way to demonstrate hate against the government," he adds.

Many here believe stopping the violence is not just about making Iraq's security forces more effective.

It is also about addressing the country's deep ethnic and sectarian divisions.

"If Sunnis or Shias feel they are not included, the violence will continue. The Sunnis now feel they are not part of this government, so they will fight back - if not today, tomorrow they will fight back," said Dr Saleh al-Mutlak, a secular Sunni politician.

New cross-sectarian political coalitions have formed in the run up to the elections next March.


But Dr Saleh believes Iraqi politics are not yet inclusive enough.

"Without having a party that can include both Sunnis and Shia, that is really non sectarian and secular, we can't find stability. The only solution is a nationalist movement that includes all Iraqis."

There is no doubt that Iraq is safer than two years ago. But it is now entering a crucial period.

More American troops are preparing to withdraw next year, and jockeying for power among politicians is intensifying before the elections.

Meanwhile, many on the streets are still waiting for basics such as jobs and services.

The fear is that all these uncertainties could provide new opportunities for the insurgents.

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