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Is Al Qaeda in Iraq on the Run?

By Jack Kelly

CNN's Michael Ware said in a broadcast Jan. 30 that Ramadi is "the true al Qaida national headquarters." If that were true, al Qaida is in bigger trouble in Iraq than most of us realize.

Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt devoted his show last Wednesday to the (overwhelmingly negative) opinions of Iraq war veterans on the demands of Democrats that U.S. troops be pulled out. One call was from "Bruce in Upland," whose son is a soldier currently serving in Iraq.

"I will speak for my son who right now is bored out of his mind in Ramadi, because he hasn't heard a shot fired in combat now in about six or seven weeks," Bruce said.

There were about 22 enemy incidents per week in Ramadi in April, said Marine Major Jeff Pool. That's declined to "about two per week." (An enemy incident is any type of direct or indirect fire, from a sniper to a mortar or an IED attack.) Throughout Anbar province, the number of "incidents" has dropped from about 400 last December to 155 last week, said Maj. Pool, the public affairs chief for U.S. forces in western Iraq.

"Though these numbers are a substantial drop, I believe them to be artificially high," Maj. Pool said. The increased operational tempo resulting from the troop surge has increased exposure to the enemy as it has increased the number of al Qaida operatives killed or captured, he said.

"Anbar is returning to a state of normalcy, so I consider the soldier in Ramadi being bored a true measure of progress," he said.

A lot of things have changed since Mr. Ware did that interview with Anderson Cooper. But he was wrong even then.

In October of 2006, al Qaida declared Baquba to be the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq, and claimed to control both Anbar province (of which Ramadi is the capital), and Diyala province, of which Baquba is the capital).

So how are things faring for al Qaida in its new capital? About as poorly as in Ramadi, says Michael Yon, a former Green Beret turned freelance journalist who is embedded with U.S. forces.

"It's really slowed down here in Baquba," Mr. Yon told Mr. Hewitt in a telephone interview Thursday. "I was just in the TOC (tactical operations center) about 15 minutes before I came on the show, and they were like the Maytag repairmen here."

U.S. intelligence thought there were about 1,000 al Qaida in Baquba when Operation Arrowhead Ripper began June 19. Those who haven't fled have been killed or captured.

The smaller part of the reason for the dramatic improvement in Ramadi and Baquba is the change in strategy embodied by the surge. The larger part is the change of heart of most of al Qaida's former allies.

Mr. Yon was with U.S. troops in the Spring of 2005, when they fought insurgents in the Baquba suburb of Buhritz. Among "the most proficient at killing our people," he said, were the 1920s Revolution Brigades.

In April the 1920s Revolution Brigades attacked al Qaida and asked for U.S. help. Last week Mr. Yon returned to Buhritz with a leader of the group, "Abu Ali."

Mr. Yon asked Abu Ali why his group switched sides. "Al Qaida is an abomination of Islam," he replied. "Cutting off heads, stealing peoples money, kidnapping...every type of torture they have done."

Sheikh Abdul Sattar al Rishawi, founder of the Anbar Salvation Council, gave similar reasons for his change of allegiance.

When al Qaida ran Baquba, it would amputate the two fingers used to hold a cigarette of any Iraqi caught smoking. Men who refused to grow beards were beaten, as were women for the "sexually suggestive" behavior of carrying tomatoes and cucumbers in the same bag, Mr. Yon said. He recounted finding the bodies of beheaded children.

Al Qaida's brutality has alienated the overwhelming majority of Sunnis as well as the Shias who were the primary targets of its attacks. When the U.S. can provide them with protection, ordinary people are turning on al Qaida with a vengeance.

Most of al Qaida's leaders and many of its foot soldiers escaped from Baquba, and probably will try to establish another "capital" elsewhere. But they're running out of places to go.

"They can't go south to (overwhelmingly Shia) Basra," Mr. Yon told Mr. Hewitt. "There are only a few places they can go to in Anbar, and these are drying up. There's fewer places in Diyala, and what's left is drying up. They certainly can't go to the Kurdish regions, because they will be killed."

Mr. Yon said he expects al Qaida to focus on Mosul, capital of Ninevah province in Iraq's northwest. "But the Iraqi security forces up there are pretty well advanced, and they can hold their own now," he added.

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