Al-Qaeda: cash for membership
Baghdad - Al-Qaeda in Iraq has offered cash to lure back former Sunni allies angry over the government's failure to give them jobs and pay their salaries on time, said Sunni tribesmen and Iraqi officials.
The recruitment drive adds to worries that the terror network is attempting a comeback after the deaths of its two top leaders in April and is taking advantage of a summer of uncertainty.
The political stalemate in Baghdad is entering its sixth month after inconclusive elections, just as the US military is rapidly drawing down its forces.
Tribesmen said that some lower-ranking former al-Qaeda members’ need for cash to feed their families is pushing them to rejoin the terror group and that al-Qaeda's presence is growing in Anbar province west of the capital.
"The government must help us counter the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Anbar," warned Mahmoud Shaker, an influential tribesman from the province's Habbaniyah district.
Others warned that the recruitment could help al-Qaeda gain ground elsewhere in Iraq.
"I expect that if salaries continue to be paid late, Sahwa members will themselves seek to rejoin al-Qaeda," said Rafia Adel, Sahwa leader from the city of Beiji, referring to the Sunni tribesmen who turned against al-Qaeda and sided with the US military and the government.
Al-Qaeda is exploiting continuing resentment by the Sunnis over their second-class status in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, particularly in Baghdad, which had been a Sunni-dominated city for 1 000 years.
The 2006 and 2007 revolt by Sunni tribesmen against al-Qaeda dramatically changed the course of the war. Former insurgents were organised into Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, to help US and Iraqi troops fight al-Qaeda.
The US military initially supervised and paid the salaries of the Sahwa fighters, whose numbers peaked to 100 000 in 2008.
The Iraqi government took over the Sahwa from the US last year, agreeing to give at least 20% of the fighters police and government jobs and to pay the rest to maintain security in Sunni areas. Other fighters simply returned to their old jobs.
Nowadays, the government pays the salaries of its estimated 650 000-strong police and army on time, including the estimated 20 000 Sahwa fighters who have been assimilated into the security forces.
But the remaining fighters on the government payroll go without their checks, in some cases for as long as three months.
The government cites lack of funds or bureaucratic snags for the delays.
Exploiting these grievances, al-Qaeda operatives are approaching disgruntled Sahwa members with cash offers, said four senior Sahwa leaders.
"Al-Qaeda is spending a great deal of money to win back members of the Sahwa," Adel said.
Iraqi officials aware of overtures
A senior Iraqi security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was aware of al-Qaeda's overtures to Sahwa members, adding that cash offers came in letters and messages sent through intermediaries to tribal chiefs in charge of Sahwa groups across Iraq.
It is unclear to what extent al-Qaeda's drive has been successful so far, but it appears that the extremists have had some luck in luring low-ranking, cash-starved fighters, as well as those nursing other grudges against the Shi’ite-led government, but not, for the most part, influential tribal chiefs.
For now, analysts say al-Qaeda's strength in Iraq is limited.
"The group is still more akin to a terrorist outfit than the vanguard of a broad-based popular insurgency," said Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York.
Peter Harling, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that while al-Qaeda has shown an enduring capacity to stage spectacular attacks, it remains a "fringe movement".