Ten years after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is at risk of becoming a failed state again as al-Qaeda reclaims vast swathes of the country.
Friday’s anniversary of the Iraqi dictator’s arrest sees the country still struggling with his legacy, with al Qaeda launching a fresh campaign of terrorist atrocities from new territory carved out in western and northern Iraq.
Backed by jihadists fighting the civil war in neighboring Syria, the group is trying to create an “emirate” straddling the two countries, taking advantage of the collapse in security across the border.
Bridges linking four key border towns on the Iraqi side have been dynamited, making it difficult for security forces to operate in the area.
Road signs have even been put up proclaiming it to be the turf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the name for the joint Syrian-Iraqi al Qaeda franchise.
Further north in the city of Mosul, another al Qaeda stronghold, the group is boosting its war chest by raking in up to £5 million a month in “tithes” from local businesses.
Using their new safe haven as an operating base, al Qaeda has mounted repeated strikes across the country, with an average of 68 car bombs a month this year.
After a period between 2009 and 2011 in which violence was on the wane, al Qaeda’s resurgence in the past year has led to a fresh sense of despair on the streets of Baghdad, where many young Iraqis think now only of leaving the country.
“It is not as bad as during the civil war, but whenever you leave your house, you can’t be sure that you will be coming back,” said Shadi Karaqzi, 23, an accountancy student smoking a shisha pipe in a central Baghdad cafe, itself the target of a devastating car bomb attack in 2007. “We are living in terror.”
“The wish of most young men now is just to live abroad so that they can have a normal life,” added his friend Ghaith Hamed, 22.
In recent months, al Qaeda’s so-called “reload rate” – the time between one series of mass attacks and another – has dropped to as little as a week, down from four to six weeks.
The death toll for 2013 has already topped 7,000, with the United Nations saying that 979 died in October alone, the latest month for which figures are available.
That is roughly twice the Iraqi death rate when US forces plucked Saddam from his “spider hole” in Tikrit in December 2003, an arrest hailed at the time as spelling the end of Iraq’s insurgency problems.
The brunt of al Qaeda’s new onslaught is borne by Iraq’s majority Shia Muslim community, who are classed as apostates in the terror group’s extremist Sunni Muslim vision.
So far, senior Shia clerics have forbidden retaliation. But in interviews with The Telegraph, both Iraqi politicians and foreign diplomats have expressed fears that the sheer scale of the current onslaught is putting a strain on Shias’ willingness to turn to the other cheek.
They fear a return to the sectarian warfare of 2006-2007, when up to 3,000 people a month were killed in tit-for-tat violence waged by Sunni and Shia death squads.
Only last month, police found the bodies of 19 people – including a family of five – shot dead and dumped in two districts of Baghdad, one mainly Sunni, the other Shia.
“Al Qaeda is trying to return the country to the civil war era by killing Shias,” said Sami al Askary, an Iraqi MP and adviser to Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister. “So far they have not succeeded, but nobody knows how long for. When the rage comes, you cannot expect how people will react.”
The current wave of violence has its roots in Iraq’s own belated version of the Arab Spring a year ago, when the country’s Sunni minority – who enjoyed privileged status under Saddam – began their own mass demonstrations.
They complained of being treated as second class citizens by Iraq’s new Shia-dominated government, alleging that they were subject to mass arrests by the security forces and barred from government jobs because of pasts in Saddam’s Baath party.
While foreign diplomats say their claims were not without foundation, they got little sympathy from Maliki’s government, whose followers point out that Sunnis treated Shias in exactly the same way when they were in power.
Maliki also feared that al Qaeda would infiltrate the movement, a prophecy that his security forces then helped fulfil when they violently broke up a Sunni protest in the northern town of Hawija last April.
While the troops claimed they were fired on first, the deaths of some 40 Sunnis in the military’s heavy-handed response proved a major new recruiting sergeant for al Qaeda.
The group then scored a second major coup in July, when it staged a mass jailbreak at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, freeing several hundred hardcore followers held on terrorism charges.
The break-in at what was supposed to be the country’s most impregnable jail underlined both al Qaeda’s operational sophistication and the Iraqi security forces’ continued incompetence.
Some 933,000 people are now enlisted in various military and paramilitary police units. Yet despite having ballooned to the same size as it was in Saddam’s time, much of the million-man army remains poorly equipped, badly-trained and indisciplined.
Often they lack the equipment, logistics and training to dominate the ground in hostile areas, and since the US troop withdrawal, there has been little in the way of intelligence sharing.
Al Qaeda’s current hold on Iraq is still weaker than it was at its peak of 2004-2007, when it controlled entire cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah.
With elections due next April, Maliki’s government is now making a concerted push against al Qaeda on several fronts. At a meeting in Washington last month, he is believed to have reinstated intelligence sharing agreements, which withered amid the increasing acrimony between the two governments ahead of the US pull-out in 2011.
The Iraqi government is also awaiting consignments of Russian helicopter gunships, the only way in which they can currently mount surprise attacks on al Qaeda hideouts in remote desert areas.
The Telegraph understands that a plan is also under way to adopt a more “hearts and minds” security strategy, moving away from the mass arrests that have helped alienate Iraq’s Sunnis.
“Ahead of the elections, I understand that we will be moving to a new, more refined, intelligence-led approach,” said Mouffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former national security adviser, who still maintains close links with Maliki. “Hopefully, the time for mass arrests is over.”
More From The Telegraph:
- Colin Freeman: Saddam's legacy still haunts Iraq
- Sunni militants 'liberate' northern Iraqi town from government
- Ten years after Saddam's fall, his home town of Tikrit still mourns
This article by Colin Freeman was first published by The Telegraph.