Why It's Too Soon To Declare Victory Against Al-Qaeda in Iraq

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It's been a good month for the United States and the Iraqi government in their joint fight against the insurgency, but it's hard to tell if it's been quite as good as Iraq's national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie made out on Thursday.

Referring to documents he said were seized in raids on al-Qaeda hideouts, the Iraqi national security adviser proclaimed "the beginning of the end of al-Qaeda in Iraq" and said the group was "facing destruction." The authenticity of the documents has not been confirmed. A Western diplomat speaking on Thursday was hopeful, but much more circumspect than al-Rubaie. The Americans and the Iraqis, he said, were "still conducting raids all over the place." Al Qaeda in Iraq is "not necessarily on the run, but certainly stunned."

It may be weeks before the impact of the current operations against al-Qaeda becomes apparent. The group has announced a new leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, which the U.S. believes is a pseudonym for Egyptian explosives expert Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Despite a large-scale presence of security forces on the streets of Baghdad and a ban on vehicle traffic during prayer time, a suicide bomber Friday killed more than ten people at a Shi'ite mosque.

One attack may say little about the overall strength and commitment of the insurgency. But perhaps more importantly, this week the Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni political group with insurgent ties, rejected the legitimacy of the government and its newly-complete cabinet.

"It's a matter of principles and a political agenda," said Muthanna Hareth al-Dhari, an MSA spokesman and the son of its leader. He told TIME that neither the death of Zarqawi nor the naming of new ministers for defense, national security and interior would influence the broader insurgency.

Al-Dhari shared the skepticism of the moderate Sunnis who participate in Iraq's government that the new government would put a stop to the Shi'ite death squads they believe operate out of the Interior Ministry. "We don't expect they will do it," he said.

Skepticism about the government's ability to clean up the Interior Ministry isn't limited to Sunnis. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq's parliament, said he believed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had the desire to combat militia influence but may not have the power to do so. "I'm sure he's serious," Othman said. "Whether he can do it or not I don't know."

The Western diplomat said such sentiments were understandable, but that he hoped the Iraqi government's actions in coming weeks and months will reassure Sunnis and other skeptics. The government also has to convince them that the security crackdown in Baghdad is aimed at insurgents rather than at the Sunni community in general.

"The hard slogging," the diplomat said, "really begins now."