Ever since the capture this spring of two senior leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi military commanders say the extremist group is on the wane. Despite that, the same officials worry that al-Qaida militants might be merging with other Sunni insurgent groups.
In Iraq last week, four accused insurgents escaped from a prison that the U.S. military recently handed over to the Iraqi government. A website that carries messages for the group of insurgents known as al-Qaida in Iraq claims the men were high-ranking members.
Although U.S. officials repeatedly say the influence of such groups is waning, low-level attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces occur almost daily. As well, the officials also worry that militants aligned with al-Qaida might be merging with other Sunni insurgent groups.
The danger they pose is most evident in the streets of Mosul, in northern Iraq.
In a once-thriving section of the city -- a main thoroughfare of shops and apartment blocks west of the Tigris River -- checkpoints have now been set up every few hundred yards.
Even though most of the shops are now shuttered, the walls have been riddled with bullets and a smell of garbage and rot hangs in the air, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Sabri Latif of the Iraqi federal police says he is trying to take this neighborhood back.
His men stop every car that passes and check passengers' names against a so-called black list of wanted insurgents.
Mohammad says that if his men find one of the people on the list, they arrest him right away.
U.S. Still Present In Mosul
Behind the general stands a small team of American troops. They wear regular-issue U.S. military fatigues but drive Humvees painted with Iraqi police colors and Iraqi flags.
According to the 2008 security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, Americans can no longer patrol Iraqi cities. But in Mosul, it's different.
In just the past few days, grenades, roadside bombs and gunmen have killed and injured scores of Iraqi security forces there. On this day, the team has received reports of a roadside bomb that was planted in front of a hospital.
Iraqi federal police shoot at the explosive device to dismantle it. Mohammad orders his men away from the scene.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Reid says the bomb was a water bottle that had been packed with homemade explosives and filled the rest of the way with very small, sharp rocks, with a cell phone initiator.
"It'd be basically a grenade with rock shrapnel," he says, adding that it was a pretty amateur bomb -- the reason it didn't explode when the Iraqi police shot it.
Weakened Al-Qaida Changes Tactics
Reid and other officers in the region say that although low-level attacks continue daily, Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq and its umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, lack the sophistication they had back in the extremely violent years of 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Al-Qaida in Iraq lost much momentum this April, when its two main leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, were killed in clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Losing these two men meant losing any personal connection with top al-Qaida leaders who are hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Now, al-Qaida in Iraq might have decided that an Islamic state is no longer a viable goal, says Lt. Col. Michael Marti, the senior U.S. intelligence officer in northern Iraq.
"What they do think is viable is that they could at least cause enough either real degradation to security -- or create the perception of degraded security -- so they have the ability to move and operate and still do things inside of Iraq," he says.
But Danger Continues, Despite Narrowed Focus
Marti says former al-Qaida fighters are beginning to work with other Sunni insurgent groups that specifically target Americans and oppose Iraq's current, Shiite-dominated government. These groups hope they can force Shiite leaders to include Sunnis as they form a new government in the coming weeks.
The groups still get some funding from outside Iraq, Marti says. But for the most part, the money is coming from ragtag operations.
"[They are] hitting up mom-and-pop shops, pharmacies to gain funding, trying to blow up the bases of power-station towers so that they can extort from the company, 'Hey if you don't pay us X amount of money, we'll blow up another tower,'" Marti says. "It's those types of things that tell us that they are a desperate organization."
Brian Fishman, a terrorism analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation, says just because al-Qaida's scope might have narrowed, it doesn't mean the group has disappeared.
"It doesn't mean that they're not dangerous. It just means that they're less dangerous, and the type of threat they pose has shifted," he says.
That threat, Fishman says, is not so much from foreign fighters who want to wage a global jihad, but local ones who want to resolve their problems with violence. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.