Arrest deals 'fatal blow' to al-Qaida in Iraq
· Capture of senior jihadist creates 'leadership crisis'
· Gloomy Pentagon report raises fear of civil war
Julian Borger in Washington | September 4, 2006
The Iraqi government yesterday claimed to have dealt "fatal blows" to the al-Qaida operation in Iraq with the capture of its deputy commander, Hamed Jumaa Farid al-Saeedi, and the arrest or killing of 11 other leading al-Qaida jihadists.
Mr Saeedi's arrest was announced by the national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, who said that the al-Qaida militant was responsible for attacks on Shia Iraqis aimed at provoking civil war, including the bombing of a shrine in Samarra in February, and the organisation of death squads.
Mr Rubaie said that after his arrest, Mr Saeedi provided information that led to the capture or killing of 11 other leading figures from the group, al-Qaida in Iraq, whom Mr Rubaie did not identify.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is affiliated to Osama Bin Laden's jihadist network, and was founded by a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a US airstrike in June. Mr Rubaie said Mr Saeedi had been operating out of the same area and was seized at a house in the course of "a very precise" Iraqi military operation.
Mr Rubaie said: "Al-Saeedi carried out al-Qaida's policies in Iraq and the orders of the slain al-Zarqawi to incite sectarian violence in the country, through attempting to start a civil war between Shias and Sunnis - but their wishes did not materialise.
"We believe that al-Qaida in Iraq suffers from a serious leadership crisis. Our troops have dealt fatal and painful blows to this organisation," he said
However, it is unclear how big a role al-Qaida plays in the insurgency or in sectarian killings, and despite the recent successes in targeting the group's leadership in Iraq, US military leaders are increasingly pessimistic about what they see as an accelerating slide towards civil war.
In its quarterly report to Congress on the situation in Iraq, the Pentagon said Iraqi casualties had increased by 50% in the past three months. Around 2,000 Iraqi civilians are dying each month in sectarian violence, many of them shot by death squads.
The report quotes the Baghdad coroner's office as saying that 90% of the bodies of 1,800 victims of violence it received in July had been executed. While the death toll has been highest in the capital, the Pentagon reported that the "retaliatory cycle of violence" is spreading.
The report's authors argued that current conditions did not meet "stringent international and legal standards" that define civil war, but warned: "Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq."
It is the most pessimistic report the Pentagon has delivered to Congress on the war in Iraq, and officials made little attempt to soften it.
"It's a pretty sober report this time," Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defence for international security, told reporters. "The last quarter has been rough. The level of violence is up. Sectarian violence has been particularly acute and disturbing."
The report found that pessimism was also taking root among ordinary Iraqis. The report cites polling data collected by the International Republican Institute which showed that as recently as April, almost 80% of Iraqis thought their general situation would be better in a year. By June less than half were optimistic about their future. "In general, Iraqis have had an optimistic outlook," the Pentagon report said. "However, as time has passed, their optimism has eroded."
In Baghdad and other areas, Iraqis are relying increasingly on sectarian militias to protect them, further undermining the influence of government forces.
The US military leadership in Baghdad was reported last week to have invited bids for a two-year $20m (£11m) public relations contract to monitor US and Middle Eastern media as part of an effort to promote more positive news from Iraq.
However, better public relations seem unlikely to lift the deepening gloom among American voters about Iraq and the "war on terror". In a poll published yesterday by Time magazine and the Discovery Channel, 69% of Americans said they believe the "war on terror" will not be won in the next decade.