Politicians, pundits and observers differ in their assessment as to what faction poses the greatest threat in Iraq; some, including the pentagon put the Mehdi Army on top of the list while others believe it's al-Qaeda.
Who is number one is not really the most important point because both groups are almost equally extremely dangerous and both had already caused so much mess and cost Iraq and America a heavy price in blood, treasure and precious time. Both need to be dealt with.
I think it's important to note that since any kind of theocratic rule in Iraq is a threat then it would make sense to add a third group which is religious political parties both Sunni or Shia. While the former two groups are so radical that they can't be reasoned with the third is relatively open to dialogue and when not under pressure from their radical counterparts, diplomacy and negotiations can play a role in reaching a solution.
In fact the correlation between the two main extremist groups is some sort of catch 22, though it really isn't. it might be believed that the attacks of al-Qaeda led to retaliation from the Mehdi army and at the same time that the attacks of Mehdi army's death squads left many Sunni with no choice but to seek protection under the umbrella of al-Qaeda; as if the two militant groups were enemies, while there's good evidence that they work jointly at some level to escalate the violence in Iraq.
We had said many times that Iraq's neighbors support both groups and since the most involved neighbors Syria and Iran are closest allies with mutual goals in Iraq, then there's a lot of reasons to believe that the two surrogates are receiving orders from the same top of the pyramid of the chain of command of the Tehran-Damascus axis. What I'm trying to say here is that when either wing is weakened, the whole structure of the evil plot of the bad neighbors is directly affected. And that any progress for Iraq and America at either front would be progress toward ultimately neutralizing both.
Nearly five weeks into operation Imposing Law in Baghdad the movement of the Mehdi Army has been largely restrained and its coercion and arm-twisting capacity is at least temporarily contained and with a policy of sustained pressure this threat can be drastically reduce. But what has it been like lately for the plans of al-Qaeda et al in establishing the core of a radical Islamist terror state in Iraq?
The "Islamic State in Iraq" a branch of al-Qaeda has been dealt several good blows recently in the same city they were planning to announce as the first capital of their state.
For four years since the liberation of Iraq Anbar remained distant from the rest of the country, defiant to the central government and a dangerous place for everyone including its own sons…this is slowly, yet clearly, changing now.
For a few months after more than two dozens of tribes formed the "Anbar Awakening Council" not much success was reported but recently there's been a constant stream of reports on battles between the tribes and al-Qaeda in several towns and villages across the vast western province; in most cases the tribes came out triumphant but sacrifices were also made.
The restive province is finally coming back into the arms of the state.
While I wouldn't take any poll results to be accurate assessment of the public attitude, they are useful in determining the general direction of changes in attitude among the population.
Recently there were two separately conducted polls in the news, and the results were contradictory to each other in more than one point which is not surprising at all but one item of the poll conducted for the BBC and ABC that caught my attention.
The poll shows that only about 4% of the Sunni are in favor of an Islamic rule. This is interesting and worth noting even if the error margin for this one was three times what the pollsters claimed, which is somewhat unlikely for an error margin. This extremely low approval rate is understandable given all what the Sunni had suffered under the extremists who touted the idea of Islamic rule in the Sunni areas for four years.
The city that at some point was about to become the new Talibanistan is now working hand in hand with the government in Baghdad and the coalition forces to defeat al-Qaeda. Maliki's and Petraeus's visit to the province were not only of symbolic value. The visit and the meeting with the heads of tribes marked the beginning of the return of the once stray province to where it belongs.
The clash between the tribe and the mosque was inevitable. For centuries and since the early days of Islam the two institutions squabbled for power and dominance and while tribe sheiks are diplomats by nature and always seek to resole conflicts and find compromises between the two sides of a conflict, clerics, especially extreme ones, do not recognize the idea of compromise; to them there is halal and haram (or allowed and forbidden) with absolutely no gray area in between whatsoever.
Iraq and the western part in particular is a very tribal community and so the increased influence and interference of clerics became a serious threat to the position of sheiks.
Sheiks are more businessmen than ideological leaders, like my tribe's sheik put it once "the hell with them [clerics] we want to live like normal people and all they care about is death".
By no means I'm trying to say that al-Qaeda is defeated. This is still far away but we can say that the in order for al-Qaeda to continue its plan to establish a safe haven in Iraq it will have to search for alternatives to Anbar. Their primary alternative is Diyala where demographics are already not as favorable for al-Qaeda as Anbar was.
There are signs that the tribes in Diyala too are changing their attitude and there are signs that they are slowly following the steps of their peers in Anbar. If this change is encouraged and supported al-Qaeda will not have many, if any, good alternative plans.