LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Military officials were talking last month about having just about routed the group al-Qaida in Iraq, and that was good news. The Sunni extremists were said to be behind some of the most audacious attacks in the country. But this past week, there have been reports of several raids that targeted al-Qaida in Iraq. And it seems that the group isn't dead yet.
Andrew Tilghman was a correspondent in Iraq for the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Marina Ottaway directs the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And both join us in the studio this morning. Thanks so much for coming in today.
Let me start with you, Andrew. First of all, just briefly, who makes up al-Qaida in Iraq? What's the nature of the command structure there?
Mr. ANDREW TILGHMAN (Iraq Correspondent, Stars and Stripes): The nature of the command structure goes back to around the time of the U.S. invasion when the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi came over, and he was sort of a freelance jihadi at the time and ultimately forged some ties with bin Laden in the al-Qaida senior organization.
The actual commanding control structure - there's a lot of debate about that as to whether there's a real central authority or whether it's much more dispersed than that. But it's basically - among all the various insurgent groups, it's certainly the most radical fundamentalist anti-American organization.
HANSEN: How does the military know they're actually engaging with al-Qaida in Iraq or other insurgents?
Mr. TILGHMAN: You know, that's a very good question. And for a lot of the past few years it appears to me that the U.S. military has sort of gone with this assumption that if it looks like al-Qaida and it acts like al-Qaida, then it's al-Qaida. Obviously, the nature of the organization is not such that they wear identification cards around their neck, so there are some instances where they'll do a raid and they will go in and they will find laptops with computer equipment that show a clear effort to communicate with other al-Qaida operatives. But in a lot of situations, it's very, very ambiguous. And for whatever the reason, a lot of times the military and civilian leadership is very quick to say, this insurgent was al-Qaida.
HANSEN: And is al-Qaida strong in Iraq now, would you say, Andrew?
Mr. TILGHMAN: I would say it's not very strong in Iraq. I mean, I think it's always been a relatively marginal organization compared to the - some of the other Sunni insurgent groups. And I would say it's certainly even more so now.
HANSEN: Marina Ottaway, given what Andrew Tilghman has just said about the strength of al-Qaida in Iraq, how substantial a factor is the fact that al-Qaida seems to be weak in the recent reduction in violence inside Iraq?
Dr. MARINA OTTAWAY (Director, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): It certainly is a factor. I think there is no doubt about it, and there are a lot more Sunni organizations that are fighting now against al-Qaida. In other words, there has been a split in the ranks of Sunnis. I mean, al-Qaida is a fairly nebulous organization, but it's quite clear that, right now, there are Sunni groups that are fighting alongside the United States and groups that are fighting against the United States.
The problem is that what is happening is that we are going to see violence increasing among the Sunni groups that are fighting alongside the United States. And then there are already some very alarming signs that this is beginning to happen because these are militias. They are very decentralized. They are very local. And they're fighting for turf.
HANSEN: How can the government of Iraq begin to meet its political and diplomatic goals then if this fighting continues?
Dr. OTTAWAY: There has been a reduction in the violence right now. The problem is that it's not clear at all. And I think, very frankly, the U.S. government does not have a plan on how you move from these militias, these tribal groups, these concerned citizens' groups as they are called in some areas that are being armed by the United States, how you take of those groups and then reconcile their existence with reestablishing some sort of government in the country, because at this point, it's a lot of local groups.
Perhaps, a parallel that's worth mentioning here is that with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. We armed all those groups that essentially were tribal groups, that were local groups, to resist the Soviets. And of course, we never brought the mujahedeen under control.
HANSEN: Mm-hmm. Talk a little bit now about what the United States can take, what kind of steps it can take, because Congress is really deadlocked on Iraq. The Democratic proposal to tie $50 billion dollars in interim war spending to a withdrawal came up short, so did the Republican offer of $70 billion with no strings attached.
Marina, is - does either party's offer make sense to you? Which one makes more sense?
Dr. OTTAWAY: I don't think either party has a game plan at this point. The big question in Iraq now is a - okay, the surge has worked to some extent in reducing the violence. What is the next step? What is the political step? And the Bush administration keep on saying the Iraqi leadership has missed the opportunity to do something about the political situation.
The problem is that the Iraqi leadership is never going to take the steps that the United States would like it to take because it's extremely divided. I mean, the reality over that country is that you have factions with totally different goals. Now, so the Bush administration does not have a political plan on how you move from the surge to a political situation. And I think that the Democrats don't have the slightest idea what to do either.
HANSEN: Andrew, I'd like to get your take on this.
Mr. TILGHMAN: Well, I think that if you go out and talk to some of the lower level military leaders that are out there beyond Baghdad, dealing day to day in these very cities in Iraq, they have strikingly little faith in the ability of the Maliki government to really do anything. You know, they're quick to tell you that the Maliki government has very little popular support. There's really not much of operational bureaucracy in any of these ministries. It doesn't have control over the military. I mean, in effect, the Iraqi army is more under the commanding control of the U.S. military than the Iraqi government.
So I think that's the ultimate stumbling block. Like you said that, you know, the sort of a - the violence ebbs and flows and we can, sort of, be pleased and take heart when it subsides a bit. But ultimately, is Iraq getting any closer to being a functional state in the traditional sense of the word? And I really don't think there's much sign that that's the case.
Dr. OTTAWAY: Yeah. I'd like to add something here. I totally agree that the Maliki government is extremely weak. It's an illusion to think that there is going to be a stronger government coming along any time soon. The fact is that in a society which - in a country which is as divided as Iraq is now, you are not going to see a strong leader emerging who is acceptable to all sides. So it's - I think what makes the government so weak is really the nature of the situation.
HANSEN: Marina Ottaway is the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Andrew Tilghman reported on the war on Iraq for the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
Thank you both for coming in today.
Mr. TILGHMAN: Thank you.
Dr. OTTAWAY: Thank you.
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