BAQUBA, Iraq — This spring, United States military commanders said that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was a group in disarray, all but finished as a formidable enemy after American and Iraqi troops had killed or captured more than three-quarters of its leaders.
But even as officials in the United States and Iraq made public pronouncements that reveled in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s demise, the Sunni insurgent group vowed “dark days colored in blood.”
This summer, as if to make good on its pledge, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia embarked on a wave of terror that managed to shake even an Iraqi public inured to violence: during the past two months, Iraq has witnessed some of its highest casualty tolls in more than two years, according to the government.
How Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has managed this unlikely turnaround — from a near spent force to a reinvigorated threat to Iraq’s democracy in a little more than two months — is a puzzle to both the Americans and Iraqis who study the insurgent group, some of whom now wonder whether the organization in Iraq can ever be entirely defeated.
“The people who said Al Qaeda in Iraq was finished were fooling themselves,” said Hadi al-Amiri, former leader of a Shiite militia and also of the Parliament’s security committee, using another name for the insurgent group. “They have sleeper cells throughout the country that have always been capable of rising up at any moment. They will not be finished in Iraq anytime soon.”
The spate of bombings, assassinations and brazen daylight raids of government banks and an Iraqi military headquarters has come during a pivotal period.
It has been a long, hot summer in which public services like electricity and clean water have been in short supply; a political vacuum that has left Iraq without a government more than six months after Parliamentary elections shows no signs of being resolved; and American troops have significantly reduced their role, leaving exposed the glaring weaknesses of Iraqi security forces.
Perhaps as significant, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an extremist Sunni group that believes Shiites are heretics, has recently begun to partner with Shiites in the county’s south, according to Iraqi officials and Awakening Council leaders who retain ties to the insurgent group.
The group has paid Shiites to provide intelligence and to manufacture and plant bombs in areas where a Sunni would most likely attract unwanted attention, said Abdullah Jubouri, an Awakening leader in Salahuddin Province, in northern Iraq.
In Wasit Province, a largely rural Shiite governorate southeast of Baghdad, there had been few bombings in recent years. But this summer, the province was bombed several times, presumably by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, including an explosion last month at a police station in the capital, Kut, that killed 30 people and wounded more than 85.
“Shiite civilians are helping Al Qaeda because they need the money,” said a Wasit provincial council member, Shamel Mansour Ayal.
Other bombings in which officials suspect a Qaeda-Shiite link have occurred throughout the summer in other parts of the predominantly Shiite south — including Basra, the country’s relatively peaceful southern oil hub where bombings killed 43 people last month.
The United States military in Iraq, however, said that it had seen no evidence of ties between the insurgent group and Shiites, and that the group’s “network has been degraded” since this spring, when 34 of its top 42 leaders were killed or captured.
“Recent joint operations have resulted in eliminating key leaders, and elements of the A.Q.I. support network including A.Q.I. operators responsible for financing, ‘propaganda’ capabilities, couriers, Internet communication, recruiting, bomb-building and planning attacks,” the military said in an e-mail, using the abbreviation for Al Qaeda in Iraq. “Even so, there are low- to mid-level terrorists who continue to operate in Iraq. We continue to support Iraqi Security Forces in their work to stop those who wish to turn back Iraq’s forward progress.”
After seven years at war, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains an enigma and has only about 200 “hard core” fighters, according to the United States military.
Last month, Gen. Ray Odierno, then the commander of American forces in Iraq, expressed surprise at the group’s ability to coordinate attacks on a single day in 13 cities that killed more than 50 people and wounded 250.
General Odierno said the violence was “not unexpected,” but added: “What I would tell you surprised me a little bit was that they were able to do it over the country with some coordination.”
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s structure has given it the flexibility to make frequent and varied attacks, analysts say.
“You don’t need a huge, thriving organization to carry out huge, devastating attacks,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Each member in a cell of the group, which numbers from 6 to 20 fighters, is trained in a range of specialties. The cell’s leader, or emir, has the authority to plan attacks, often working in concert with other insurgent groups, including Baathists. The organization is designed so that the loss of any individual, including a leader, has as little effect as possible.
The group, thought to be made up almost entirely Iraqis because the stream of foreign jihadists into the country has been cut to a trickle in recent years, is overseen by its third generation of leaders, who by all accounts are as ruthless as their predecessors, and possibly more cunning and capable.
The past few weeks have brought a number of missed opportunities to help further erode the group’s dwindling support among the country’s minority Sunnis.
At a meeting of local tribes last week in Diyala Province, Iraqi military and police officials alienated many of the hundreds of Sunni tribal leaders present by threatening them with arrest unless they signed pledges to inform on and turn in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia members. Those belonging to the insurgent group, the authorities said, would be hunted down mercilessly. An Iraqi police training video playing on a screen in the background showed police dogs attacking people.
“The enemy they are talking about lives with us — they are our neighbors, our brothers, our family, so you can’t just open fire on them,” said a tribal leader, Abdul Jabir al-Saadi.
A day earlier, near the western city of Falluja, a joint American-Iraqi military raid seeking to arrest a person suspected of being a Qaeda leader killed several villagers, including a child.
The local government released a statement denouncing the raid as a “terrorist operation” that had been “motivated by the deep hatred of this city and its people.” Hundreds took to the streets in protest.
A man who said he was a member of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Abdulah al-Dini and who agreed to speak briefly to a local reporter, said his group fed off such public anger.
“The support of the mujahedeen believers is increasing every day,” he said.