Iraq Still in Al Qaeda’s Grip, Admiral Says

By Kristen Noel

The coalition’s success securing Baghdad and Iraq’s Anbar province from al Qaeda will need to be repeated in other parts of Iraq, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq said. “There are still villages and towns and regions that are completely under the thumb of terrorism,” Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith said.

Coalition forces still are embedded in an extended effort against insurgency in Iraq, Smith told online journalists and “bloggers” in a conference call.

“Operation Phantom Phoenix, which began just after the first of the year, is a continuance of our activity associated with going after al Qaeda and other extremists,” he said. “It’s not the start of; it’s not the middle; it’s not the end; it’s just part of a long effort that’s been under way for obviously some years now.”

The operation is focused on liberating Iraqi villages, mainly in the north, where al Qaeda has moved in and is attempting to control populations with terror, Smith explained. After removing insurgents, coalition forces will remain in the villages to bring security and economic development, as they have in Anbar and Baghdad, he said. Al Qaeda fled north after being pushed out of central Iraq over the course of 2007.

But eliminating insurgent fighters is only half the battle in defeating al Qaeda in Iraq, the admiral said. Breaking down al Qaeda’s central nodes of operation — such as foreign access, finances and communication — is also a crucial part of the fight, he explained. “It’s not just … killing fighters,” he said. “You could do that probably forever.”

Limiting foreign access is “a big one,” he said, because multinational forces have found that nine out of 10 suicide bombings in Iraq are conducted by foreign fighters. “If you didn’t have the foreigners coming in, … you would have reduced 90 percent of all the suicide attacks that have occurred,” he said.

Smith pointed out that all of al Qaeda’s senior leaders in Iraq are foreigners. “There are no really senior Iraqis that have a position of significant authority in terms of the major inner-circle players,” he said.

Finance — from sources outside Iraq and generated internally — is the other key piece to go after. “The finances are a critical component of insurgency, and that’s one thread of the insurgency you’re going to take on,” Smith said.

Last year, al Qaeda was driven out of every major city in Iraq except Mosul, he said, which has affected the terrorist organization’s ability to raise funds inside Iraq through corruption and criminal activity. “Much of their economic base, in terms of how they would intimidate, kidnap, extort, and all the rest of it, is less successful to them,” Smith explained.

The coalition’s removal of al Qaeda from Iraq’s economic centers also cut off many of the terror organization’s most significant communication avenues, Smith said. In 2006, al Qaeda had free-flowing lines of communication from Mosul through Baghdad and virtually all the way through the Syrian border, he said.

Smith added that, ultimately, the continued success of localized efforts by coalition and Iraqi security forces and concerned citizens groups to rebuild infrastructure, restart the economy and bring back jobs will lead to the demise of insurgency in Iraq.

“Al Qaeda brought nothing in a positive, constructive way,” he said. “What the people are looking for is a change in a positive direction. Beyond just the reduction of violence, they’re also looking for an opportunity to get their lives back.”