Casualties, and terrorist attacks, continue to run at half the rate of the last few months. It is believed there is a connection between this and the growing number of patrols and raids in Sunni Arab towns, places that have not seen such activities for the last two years. These battles are a deliberate effort to break the power of the gangs (that provide the support that make the terror attacks possible). All of this is possible because of more Iraqi police and troops being available, and more information about the gangs.The increase in such information is no accident.
American intelligence efforts, a war-in-the-shadows that has been fought with great intensity for over two years, has revealed a lot of detail about how Iraqi society really works. It is not a pretty picture. Saddam left behind a culture of armed gangs that use on terror and intimidation to control populations. This is the system that kept Saddam in power, and it is a clever perversion of traditional Iraqi society. Saddam took advantage of family, clan and tribal loyalties to increase the power of tribes or clans that would cooperate with him. For the groups that remained hostile (mainly Kurds and Shia Arab, but some Sunni Arabs as well), he allowed loyal "gangs" to terrorize and exploit these hostile groups. Many of these loyal gangs were, literally, criminal enterprises that controlled illegal activities in an area. The most valuable of these scams was the smuggling, especially oil smuggling, where the gangs with official permission, kicked back to Saddam part of their profits.
When Saddam's government fell in early 2003, and his army and civil service were dismissed shortly there after, Saddam's gangs were largely unaffected. The gangs actually thrived in the aftermath of the invasion, often being responsible for much of the organized looting. Some of the gangs, especially the ones doing dirty work for Saddam in the Shia south, were destroyed by their armed, and vengeful, victims. Saddam had provided overpowering military force to back up the gangs, and this backup disappeared when Saddam was run out of office. But in the Sunni Arab areas, the gangs became the heirs to Saddam, and carried on in his tradition of rule-by-terror and large scale theft.
The decision of the gangs to join forces with al Qaeda was a practical one. Both groups were hostile to the foreign troops who had deposed Saddam, and al Qaeda had an endless supply of suicide bombers, and cash. It was a marriage made in hell, and it is coming to a bad end. Al Qaeda was about more than suicide bombings. Al Qaeda has a plan, and that plan includes imposing a theocracy on all Moslems. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs are cut from the same cloth as the Saudi, Yemeni and Egyptian religious fanatics that founded al Qaeda, and enthusiastically joined forces with al Qaeda. But most Iraqis wanted nothing to do with another dictatorship, even a religious one. Over the past year, divorce has set in. The al Qaeda terror campaign, which stresses spectacular attacks that will play well in the media, have backfired for the less religious Sunni Arab gangs. Too many of the people getting killed in these gangs are Sunni Arabs. Even more Sunni Arabs are being killed by Kurdish and Shia Arab death squads, who are delivering traditional payback for terror attacks.
The terror campaign in Iraq has caused al Qaeda's popularity (which peaked in the months after September 11, 2001) to plummet. Those kind of numbers have consequences, the most visible one being growing hostility between al Qaeda groups and their Sunni Arab hosts. This has led to outright combat between Sunni Arabs and the (largely foreign) al Qaeda gunmen. Worse, it has led to the growth of a government informer network in the Sunni Arab community, and that has led to more and more al Qaeda big-shots getting ID'd and busted. Several senior al Qaeda people have been killed or arrested recently, because of this. The decline in terror attacks is partly the result al Qaeda being distracted by these arrests, and attacks by government forces, and Sunni Arab groups fed up with al Qaeda posturing and bullying.
Saddam may be out of business, but many of his ideas are not. The gang warfare he used to rule Iraq lives on.