MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Local elections in al Qaeda’s last urban stronghold in Iraq have given disgruntled Sunni Arabs a voice again, possibly easing resentment that fueled lingering violence and which gave the Islamist extremist group a haven.
The success of Sunni Arab parties in the January 31 vote in Iraq’s Nineveh may have made the still-violent northern province more inhospitable to al Qaeda in Iraq at a time when the group’s cohorts overseas are also losing interest in the country, defense analysts say.
“Al Qaeda proper has decided to concentrate more on Afghanistan and less on Iraq,” said David Claridge, director of Janusian Security Risk Management.
“(In Iraq) they won’t enjoy the benefits they have had. Al Qaeda won’t disappear from the scene, but they’ll become a fringe terrorist movement like they are in most places.”
While violence in most of Iraq has fallen to levels not seen since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Nineveh, and some other areas where once-dominant Sunni Arabs boycotted the last elections in 2005, have continued to be volatile.
The vote to select provincial councils dramatically changed the political map of Iraq, where Shi’ite Muslims are a majority. In Nineveh and its capital Mosul, it was potentially pivotal to contributing to greater calm.
Al Qaeda regrouped in Mosul after being forced out of former strongholds in Baghdad and Anbar province in the west by U.S.-backed Sunni Arab tribal leaders.
Improved security elsewhere was hard to reproduce in mixed Nineveh, divided between rival Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.
In Mosul, Iraqis dread car bombs and eye traffic with suspicion, policemen watch out for snipers and households are too terrified of al Qaeda’s prowling gunmen to answer doors.
“We want to be safe, more than anything,” retired builder Mohammed Tayyip, 73, said recently as he smoked a cigarette opposite a green-domed mosque.
“Give us security and the rest will follow.”
Two U.S. and Iraqi military offensives in Nineveh last year enfeebled but did not crush the violent Islamist group, which also maintains a presence in Diyala province, north of Baghdad.
NOT JUST AL QAEDA
Yet not all attacks in Mosul are the work of al Qaeda.
The U.S. military tracks at least 13 insurgent groups there, many of which are secular, mainly Sunni, nationalists — remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.
Sunni Arabs boycotted the 2005 polls, leaving them with just 10 of Nineveh’s 41 council seats, despite being 60 percent of the population. Kurds, who make up a quarter, had 31 seats.
In last Saturday’s election, the Sunni al-Hadba bloc, which appealed to many former Baathists in Nineveh, won 48.4 percent of the votes while the main Kurdish group got 25.5 percent.
That brought political relations between the two main ethnic groups back into balance. If, as many suspect, former Baathists are at the heart of Mosul’s insurgency, a more inclusive provincial council could persuade them to give up the fight.
“A win for our list will lead many armed groups to put down their weapons,” al-Hadba’s leader Atheel al-Nujaifi told Reuters before preliminary results were released Thursday.
Kurdish leaders did not appear likely to kick up a fuss.
“We know how big we are and the support we have, and we know this support cannot be more than a third of the vote,” Nineveh deputy governor Khasro Goran, a Kurd, said.
Greater tranquillity among former Baathists in Nineveh would likely be bad news for al Qaeda.
The extremist group’s presence in Mosul was only useful to the Baathists while they needed chaos. They are otherwise quite hostile to al Qaeda’s strict brand of Islamism.
“What the Baathists say to us is: Mosul is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. It has no interest in an Islamist agenda and will turn on the Islamists,” said a top U.S. official in Mosul.
The group has few other places left to run to in Iraq.
“Iraq looks like its got a government now,” said military author and defense commentator Tim Ripley. “The failed state environment is a thing of the past.”