BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The killing of al Qaeda’s top two leaders in Iraq dealt a heavy blow to a weakening Sunni Islamist insurgency and boosted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki standing as he seeks support to form a new coalition.
Al Qaeda’s Iraq leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), were killed in a joint operation by Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops on Sunday.
Maliki, who is negotiation with various factions to hold onto his post after an inconclusive election on March 7, personally announced the deaths and will try to benefit from the breakthrough against al Qaeda in Iraq.
The key to Iraq’s future stability, however, is the outcome of the coalition talks and whether they result in a government capable of easing sectarian tensions, rather than the continuing fight against remnants of the Sunni Islamist insurgency.
Many Iraqis may be skeptical over whether Masri and Baghdadi are dead. Previous government claims to have killed or captured senior al Qaeda figures sometimes have turned out to be wrong.
But this time U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went on record saying “their deaths are potentially devastating blows to al Qaeda Iraq.” When the Iraqi government has made erroneous claims in the past, U.S. officials have tended to remain silent.
The al Qaeda-led insurgency has been driven back over the past two years after Sunni tribal chiefs turned on the militant group and allied themselves with the U.S. military.
A surge in U.S. troop numbers and the growing capabilities of Iraqi security forces — now 670,000-strong — have also put Sunni Islamist insurgents on the defensive.
Al Qaeda’s activities have been largely confined to volatile Nineveh province in the north and Baghdad’s urban sprawl.
Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government will be hoping that the removal of Masri, believed to be the militants’ main strategist, will put a final nail in the coffin.
“I would not say they are totally defeated, but I would tell you right now they have been severely degraded with the pressure on that network,” the U.S. military’s spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza, told Reuters Television in Washington.
Yet analysts say the group is loosely structured.
It is not hierarchical and dependent on top-down leadership but composed of independent cells operating on their own.
Killing its leaders may have little immediate impact on operations in the pipeline.
Masri may be hard to replace. But Baghdadi may not be.
U.S. intelligence officers have long believed that Baghdadi was not a single individual.
Rather, they think the name “Baghdadi” is merely a title given to a number of Iraqi operatives who were handed leadership status within the ISI in order to dispel the notion that al Qaeda in Iraq was a mainly foreign-led organization.
Al Qaeda possibly inspires much of the Sunni Islamist insurgency, but it is not the only group carrying out attacks.
The government has also blamed suicide bombings on remnants of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, saying they have been working with al Qaeda despite not sharing its Islamic fundamentalist ideology.
Violence in Iraq, particularly during the political vacuum created by the inconclusive election, is also likely to be carried out by factions seeking to undermine rivals or manipulate public opinion.
Politically motivated violence will continue.
Most of the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion were victims of sectarian fighting between once dominant Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites, who shot to power after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam.
The sectarian slaughter has subsided and much of the violence now involves Sunni Islamist suicide bombers targeting government buildings, foreign embassies, and hotels.
While they still kill hundreds, they have largely switched away from soft targets like Shi’ite mosques and bazaars in Shi’ite areas.
But reasons behind the sectarian war haven’t gone away.
Sunnis resent their loss of power and remain deeply mistrustful of the Shi’ite-led government — convinced it is out to marginalize them and align Iraq with Shi’ite neighbor Iran.
A cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi got the most seats in the March 7 election after winning broad backing from Sunnis.
He is a secular Shi’ite who many Sunnis think would at least have something in common with Saddam by opposing sectarianism and meddling by Iran.
But Maliki’s bloc and the country’s main Shi’ite group, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), may end up forming a union that could sideline Allawi.
That would anger Sunnis and could refuel the insurgency, whether figures like Masri and Baghdadi are alive or not.
One of the main stumbling blocks to a Shi’ite-dominated governing coalition is the refusal so far of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to back Maliki for prime minister again.
There is no obvious reason why the killing of Masri and Baghdadi would change the mind of Sadr, whose group controls around 40 of the INA’s 70 seats in the next parliament. Indeed, rivals may view Maliki as even more of a serious threat.
Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Baghdad, Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington, William Maclean in London; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore