BAGHDAD Al Qaeda has resurfaced in former Iraqi strongholds, adding to the threat from more powerful and organized Shi'ite militias just as U.S. troops prepare to leave, Iraqi officials say.
Despite the deaths of leaders and pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces, al Qaeda's Sunni insurgents have been carrying out bolder attacks, seeking to rattle local security forces, officials said.
U.S. officials said al Qaeda's global second-in-command, Atiyah abd al-Rahman -- a Libyan who played a key role in managing ties between the leadership and al Qaeda in Iraq -- was killed in Pakistan last week.
But al Qaeda's resurgence, along with Shi'ite militias often funded and armed by neighbor Iran, represents a dangerous sectarian mix for Iraq as Syria seethes next door and U.S. forces aim to leave by year-end.
"There was a thought that al Qaeda has ended in Iraq. No, they regrouped and now the third generation of al Qaeda is working actively to reorganize itself with weapons and training," Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister for intelligence, told Reuters.
"They are still considered a big danger to security and society in Iraq," he said.
Iraq became a battlefield for al Qaeda after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, but its numbers and the territory in which it operates have shrunk since 2006-07, when Sunni tribal chiefs joined forces with the U.S. military.
The Iraqi wing of al Qaeda has evolved into a homegrown insurgency consisting of mainly Iraqi fighters hardened in U.S. prisons, Iraqi officials said.
It is creeping back to former strongholds and distributing leaflets in Baghdad asking people to join jihad -- holy war. Some factions have become allies of Saddam's old guard.
Car and roadside bomb attacks killed about 70 people across Iraq last week, while al Qaeda's local affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has ordered members of the Sunni Sahwa militia to rejoin its ranks.
The insurgency still has a foothold in western Anbar province, where many thought it had lost power after Sunni tribal sheikhs turned against it.
Interior Ministry Major-General Tarek al-Asal said political infighting and corruption have hurt security in Anbar. "The policeman and the soldier need the cooperation of the citizen with him when it comes to information," he said.
Armed groups linked to al Qaeda are now raiding provincial councils, attacking highways between Iraq and neighbors, kidnapping police patrols and using silenced weapons for shootouts, said Asal.
The northern province of Nineveh, as well as Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, are still hotspots for al Qaeda, Iraqi security officials said. It is also gaining strength in the Iraqi capital and nearby southern districts.
Nineveh's main city, Mosul, is seen as one of the last urban strongholds of al Qaeda in Iraq. The province funds operations through extortion and other crime after the flow of money from abroad dried up.
"In 2010 and 2011, there have been fewer attacks in Mosul because al Qaeda doesn't want to draw attention to themselves there," said Zuhair al-Araji, a member of parliament from Mosul. "But (financial) support for the ISI in Baghdad, Salahuddin and Anbar provinces comes from Mosul."
Iraq has dozens of Sunni and Shi'ite armed groups fighting for turf. Iraqi officials put the number of militants in the thousands.
In addition to Qaeda affiliates, there are groups tied to Saddam's now-banned Baath party and splinters from the Shi'ite Mehdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- the two best known being Iran-backed Asaib al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezballah.
The struggle by security forces in neighboring Syria to handle anti-government protests by mainly majority Sunnis could further unsettle Iraq's delicate sectarian balance.
Many Iraqi Baathists took refuge in Syria after Saddam's fall and deputy minister Kamal said deterioration there prompted Baathists and al Qaeda-linked groups to demonstrate their power in Iraq.
"The situation in Syria has encouraged them to open a new front in Iraq because if the regime falls in Syria, where will they go?" he said.
Iraq recently ordered the shutdown of a U.N. camp set up for refugees from Syria after reports of Sunni militants possibly taking refuge there, government and political sources said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have flagged another rising threat to Iraq's stability -- better equipped and trained Shi'ite militias backed by powerful regional players such as Iran.
"Iraqi security forces were targeting al Qaeda's members much more than Shi'ite militias and this weakened al Qaeda a lot," said a senior security official. "The Shi'ite militias, recently, are stronger and more organized than al Qaeda and even more dangerous."
Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, has said militias beholden to Iran's elite Quds force, which specializes in foreign operations, pose a bigger threat to Iraq than al Qaeda.
Even so, U.S. and Iraqi authorities say that while insurgents and armed groups will continue large-scale attacks, it will not be at the same frequency as in the past.
"We expect attacks will happen here and there," said Kamal. "But to affect Iraq's politics and government, then no, that won't happen."
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Jim Loney/Ruth Pitchford)