Iraq's security is again under attack as al-Qaeda sets new tactics in motion, and the numbers of police and army personnel are in sharp decline. Corruption within security ranks is also adding to the system's frailty.
Suicide bombers are still being recruited for mass killings, but al-Qaeda are also now targeting specific victims within the police force and army, using weapons equipped with silencers – partly in a move to deter others from taking security jobs, and partly to weaken areas into which they intend to expand. Killing them has the added benefit of further arming al-Qaeda, because they leave with the weapons of the dead soldiers.
The militant group is also using new approaches to blend in, abandoning their usual black clothing, and using people who can get close to and be trusted by the soldiers in the areas they are trying to infiltrate, as was the case of one soldier who asked to be identified as Ali Nawar.
Nawar's unit was assigned to guard a village in Samarah, where they befriended a man they believed to be part of the tribe. Much of the food and supplies the soldiers received was being stolen by the officers, leaving the soldiers standing post hungry. The man took care of them, and fed them, and they came to like and trust him. What they didn’t know was that he was being used by al-Qaeda. One day the villager approached them with food, and as they ate, he killed them all. Nawar, who had been taking a sleep break away from the checkpoint, found them all dead around the food the assassin had brought as bait.
Corruption in the ranks is playing a part in making it easier for Al-Qaeda operatives to get to their targets. The security forces are low in numbers, and most are posted in dangerous places. Knowing the soldiers don’t want to be there, many officers demand as much as 50% of their salary to let them stay home. But because so many cannot afford to lose half or more of their pay, the majority of the work lands on the poorer Iraqis, and lengthens their work days to 12 hours or more – from their previous six-hour shifts – often with no breaks, food, or days off. Their subsequent exhaustion makes them easy prey.
Army soldier Tala Thabit was serving in western Baghdad, when an attack on his unit was carried out by a group of teenagers playing loud western music in a car. They approached, quickly killed the five soldiers guarding the checkpoint, and fled.
“Since the Americans left, things are very different,” he says. “They used to supervise all the checkpoints in the hot spots, where al-Qaeda is strongest and most active. We used to serve for six hours, with 16 soldiers at the checkpoint. But now, we have only four, because so many of the soldiers pay half of their salaries to their officers so they don’t have to serve, and we have to take on their responsibilities.”
Deciding he would rather lose money than to be in danger, Thabit tried to pay off his officer, but he was told that the payoff had gone up to 80%. Unable to part with that much, he stayed on the job.
According to Baghdad Operations Command spokesman Colonel Dhia al-Wakil, Iraqi forces have discovered and broken up many al-Qaeda workshops that are being used to build silencer-equipped guns and explosives, but it has not yet had an effect as on the number and frequency of attacks. But he does believe the raids, as well as added security at the border checkpoints, have helped to limit the number of weapons coming into the country.
A security source at the Ministry of Interior added that they are also adding trenches and speed bumps at the checkpoints, to try to reduce the ease of access.
Nizar Latif contributed to this report from Baghdad.