Al-Qaida in Iraq Diary Reveals Setbacks

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The U.S. military says a leader of al-Qaida in Iraq wrote in his diary that the movement is "in crisis." Soldiers found the diary during a raid of an al Qaida safe house last November. U.S. officials say the anxiety expressed suggests that the militant movement has lost its standing among many Iraqis.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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A series of deadly bombings in Iraq this week underscores a conflict between Sunni tribes allied with the U.S. and a group known as al-Qaida in Iraq. U.S. officials blame al-Qaida for the attacks. They also say the group has suffered major setbacks.

This weekend the U.S. military released what it says was a diary kept by a leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. That document was seized in a raid. It portrays a movement suffering from recruitment problems and losing popularity, at least in one part of Iraq.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: The diary comes from a man identified as Abu Tariq, allegedly an al-Qaida leader in one sector of Iraq. The entry released by the U.S. military was dated last October. Abu Tariq described a state of near-panic in his ranks. Many of our fighters quit, he said. Others were killed. From almost 600 fighters in his sector, he said the number was down to 20 or less.

Rear Admiral Greg Smith, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, says the diary appears to be authentic. Abu Tariq's complaints, he says, coincided with a U.S. sweep against al-Qaida fighters in the very area where Abu Tariq was based.

GREG SMITH: It definitely corroborated with our operations and our efforts in the area. In fact, days prior to the discovery of that document there were eight al-Qaida taken down just a couple days leading up to it.

GJELTEN: If the diary is true it raises the question of why Iraqis are turning against this al-Qaida group. Retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson, who has studied al-Qaida in Iraq for the Pentagon, thinks it's because many al-Qaida organizers use heavy-handed tactics in areas under their control.

GARY ANDERSON: When they move into a neighborhood they have a tendency to push aside the local tribal leaders and the local religious leaders and impose their own standards, conduct their own judicial hearings and hunt down, quote, traitors in the ranks and so forth. And execute them, in many cases, fairly brutally by decapitation.

GJELTEN: In testimony on Capitol Hill last week, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said that brutal attacks unleashed by al-Qaida in Iraq have tarnished its image. But McConnell also warned that al-Qaida in Pakistan may be attracting new recruits. Admiral Smith in Baghdad says it's important to distinguish between the groups.

SMITH: The chains of command between senior leadership in Pakistan, of al-Qaida, and those here in Iraq are loose at best. The rank-and-file in Iraqi al-Qaida is more nationalistic and less ideology-driven. So it's hard to say how much influence they've had in shaping what's happened here inside Iraq.

GJELTEN: Still there are connections. U.S. intelligence officials say the al-Qaida group in Iraq, like the one in Pakistan, receives some outside financing and includes foreign fighters. Brian Fishman is an al-Qaida expert in the Combating Terrorism Center of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Captured documents, he says, show a disproportionate number of foreign fighters in Iraq coming from Libya. And someone outside seems to be coordinating the travel.

BRIAN FISHMAN: I do think that there was some kind of organizational decision there rather than this being an organic flow of Libyans into Iraq. And I say that because there seems to be a very established mechanism for getting Libyan individuals into Iraq. They all followed the same pathways; many of them travel in groups.

GJELTEN: Libyans are also playing an increasingly important role in al-Qaida operations in the Pakistani tribal areas. Brian Fishman says one problem with al-Qaida in Iraq may be that the outsiders have lost control.

FISHMAN: Local cells, local leaders, are making independent decisions about targeting, about the use of various resources. That is where the organization is having a lot of problems. It's that they are having a difficult time internally coordinating their activities.

GJELTEN: Fishman and others say that even if the problems of al-Qaida in Iraq are unique, al-Qaida leaders elsewhere should learn a lesson: killing other Muslims is not a way to win favor in the Muslim world.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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