Is Al-Qaeda Back in Baghdad?

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A series of bombings rocked predominantly Sunni areas of Baghdad over the weekend, threatening to draw al-Qaeda back into the capital's spotlight, just as Iraqi and American military commanders announced limited progress made on another fiery front line. For the last month, the attention of the Iraqi and American militaries shifted in large part from Sunni insurgents to the Shi'ite Mahdi Army. With daily car bombings and IEDs still lower in Sunni areas of the capital than they were a year ago, officials are hesitant to declare a return of al-Qaeda just yet. But with all eyes focused on the Mahdi Army's stronghold of Sadr City, it appears that the insurgent group is beginning to take advantage of the distracted U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

Iraqi military spokesman Major General Qassim Atta told reporters on Sunday that the government was making some headway in its battle in the sprawling Shi'ite slum of Sadr City against the Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "The roads into Sadr City were laden with mines and IEDs," he said, adding that three entrances into the besieged Mahdi Army stronghold had now been opened. The General added that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has designated $100 million for the neighborhood's reconstruction once the fight is finally over. But despite that progress report, the American-backed Iraqi forces are still bogged down by a resource-consuming battle with the Mahdi Army across stretches of the militia's vast east Baghdad territory.

Now, some observers fear Sunni insurgents allied with al-Qaeda may seek to capitalize on the situation by wreaking havoc in other neighborhoods where U.S. and Iraqi forces are paying less attention. Last month, American troops found a letter in a farmhouse northwest of Baghdad, purportedly signed by an al-Qaeda operative, which called on insurgents to sow disunity among the nation's Sunni fighters who have begun working with the Americans.

This weekend's bombings may be the latest evidence of that effort. In the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Amhariya in north Baghdad, where Sunni Awakening groups allied with the U.S. have fought and largely quelled the presence of al-Qaeda over the past year, a suicide bomber blast tore through a meeting of the Awakening leadership Saturday night, injuring Abu al-Abed, the local head of the movement, residents said.

In the central Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, which has also seen heavy clashes between Awakening groups and al-Qaeda over the past two years, residents say the insurgents are also introducing new tactics. On Saturday, a bomb exploded in a small storefront, after police and a crowd had gathered in response to the shooting assassination of the shopkeeper and his son. "They are using a new strategy, drawing people to a scene before an explosion," one Mansour resident told TIME. Last week, he said a fight between a group of young people outside a neighborhood school drew a crowd. After the teenagers ran off, a bomb exploded where the fight had taken place.

On Sunday morning, another resident described watching through his rearview mirror as a car bomb ripped through a police checkpoint in the same neighborhood. Police and army officers had been clustered there near chunks of concrete and walls of sand bags in an effort to heighten security. In the eastern neighborhood of Zayouna, another car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint, killing three people, wire services reported. "These attacks are evidence that al-Qaeda is still a very large threat," Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq, said Sunday, "We are continuously very closely focused on al-Qaeda."