BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. commandos in Pakistan may have little practical impact on al Qaeda in Iraq, a weakened but still deadly Islamist insurgency that could launch strikes for the next decade.
Now largely a homegrown militant group with few ties to bin Laden’s global leadership, al Qaeda in Iraq may seek revenge for the killing of the world’s most wanted man but in the long run probably will be more a thorn in the Iraqi government’s side than a destabilizing force, security officials said.
“There is nothing that can uproot al Qaeda from Iraq totally. It is an ideological organization...and nothing can uproot this ideology,” Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamal, Iraq’s deputy interior minister for intelligence, told Reuters.
Iraq became a frontline in the U.S. war on terrorism when al Qaeda took root after the 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. With American troops considered an occupying force by many Iraqis, al Qaeda found a fertile recruiting ground.
Thousands of Sunni Iraqis were lured to al Qaeda and later to an affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which took a lead role in the insurgency and drove a sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands of people.
Many of the Sunni insurgents eventually turned against al Qaeda. Kamal estimated that the militant group has been degraded by 50 percent but warned that Iraq will need “at least 10 years to diminish, greatly, the activities of this organization.”
Both Iraqi and U.S. military leaders say they have inflicted severe damage on al Qaeda in Iraq and cut its lines of communication to bin Laden and the global leadership.
Last year al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri and the head of its ISI affiliate, Omar al-Baghdadi, were killed in a raid. But the group soon named new leaders.
“Al Qaeda has no future in Iraq,” said Major-General Fadil Berwari, Iraq’s special forces commander, who estimated that 70 percent of al Qaeda had been destroyed. “We are determined to destroy and eradicate every cell, whatever may happen. We are determined to fight and eliminate them until the last person.”
Yet al Qaeda repeatedly proves itself a lethal force. Funded locally by extortion and kidnapping for ransom, it is behind an estimated 70 percent of the attacks nationwide, Kamal said.
Authorities pointed at al Qaeda for the worst recent attack, when a swarm of suicide bombers and gunmen struck the provincial council building in Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit, in March, killing at least 58 people and wounding nearly 100.
Iraqi security forces went on high alert this week and said they expected revenge attacks after bin Laden’s death. Baghdad has seen a heavy deployment in the streets in recent days.
On Thursday 17 people died and more than 60 were wounded when a suicide bomber rammed his car into a police building in mainly Shi‘ite Hilla. Babil province Deputy Governor Sadeq al-Muhunna pointed to al Qaeda as the likely culprit.
“We said before and we say it again, al Qaeda will not be ended by the killing of its leader,” he added.
While many Iraqis welcomed bin Laden’s death, some Sunnis argued that his legacy would endure within the Iraqi insurgency.
“He is the godfather of al Qaeda and I don’t believe his death will effect the armed resistance operations in Iraq,” said Salim al-Hadeedy, a former Sunni insurgent in Mosul, a last bastion of al Qaeda power in Iraq.
“Al Qaeda enjoys an enduring spirit. As time passes you will see that the death of Sheikh bin Laden is not effecting the Jihadist operations in Iraq.”
Additional reporting by Jamal al-Badrani from Mosul; Editing by Jim Loney