By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 10, 2008 - Documents released by U.S. military officials in Iraq detail the deterioration of al Qaeda in Iraq, as hundreds of its fighters have deserted to fight alongside the coalition or have been killed or captured. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a Multinational Force Iraq spokesman, briefed reporters today on a letter and a diary recovered in raids by coalition forces, both thought to be written by senior leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The documents are believed to have been written last year, and detail a shift in support as citizens who formerly supported al Qaeda in Iraq joined ranks with coalition and Iraqi forces, leaving the terror organization in a substantially weakened state.
The letter was most likely written over the summer by a mid- to high-level al Qaeda in Iraq emir, Smith said, and states, "The Islamic State of Iraq is faced with an extraordinary crisis, especially in al-Anbar."
Anbar was the first Iraqi province to experience what became known as an "awakening," in which local tribes joined forces to repel al Qaeda from their villages. The groups, along with the U.S. troop surge, have been widely credited with changing the tide in the fight against al Qaeda and creating security gains across the country.
The citizen security groups were first called "Concerned Local Citizens" by coalition officials and now are known as "Sons of Iraq." In his letter, the al Qaeda emir called them "renegades."
"The renegades and Americans started launching their attacks to destroy us," the letter reads. "We lost cities, and afterwards villages, and the desert became a dangerous refuge. We got away from people and found ourselves in a wasteland desert."
The letter delivers a pessimistic assessment of al Qaeda's long-term prospects in Anbar, and even recommends that remaining foreign fighters there be moved to other areas of Iraq, where they might have greater freedom of action. The author states that security gains in the region had paralyzed many al Qaeda operatives, making it difficult to carry weapons and to wear suicide belts.
He also wrote that foreign terrorists became disillusioned and disgruntled after arriving in Anbar, and many were asking for new assignments or to be allowed to return to their home countries.
The diary was recovered in a raid south of Balad in November. Its author is believed to be Abu Tariq, who claims to be a sector emir for al Qaeda in Iraq, and its writings are dated from the fall of 2007.
"Abu Tariq's diary provides clear and compelling evidence that Iraq's volunteer citizen groups are making their country safer by weakening al Qaeda and restricting the terrorists' freedom of movement," Smith said.
In the diary, Tariq claims to have commanded almost 600 fighters at one time, but that many quit after local tribes "changed course," and he was left with fewer than 20.
The leader of one 300-member battalion deserted just before the awakening movement was organized, he wrote. Afterward, the unit's strength declined to only two fighters, both of whom were captured while the rest joined citizen security groups aligned against al Qaeda.
In another battalion, nearly 200 fighters deserted, he wrote, leaving it with only 10.
"Some were killed and some arrested, but the majority betrayed us and joined the awakening," Tariq wrote.
Smith said progress has been made in converting the citizen security groups into Iraq's formal security forces. About 77,500 Iraqis now serve in the groups, he said, with 7,700 of those having transitioned into the Iraqi security forces so far.
Smith was quick to point out that neither the letter nor the diary signals defeat for al Qaeda in Iraq, though they tell "narrow, but compelling, stories of the challenges al Qaeda Iraq is facing as Iraqis have stood up against their indiscriminate violence and broken ideology."
"By no means does either of these documents tell the whole story," he added, "but it is heartening to know that in at least two areas in Iraq, al Qaeda is feeling the pressure of our operations and the rejection of the Iraqi people.
"It does not mean that the Iraqi people have defeated the foreign scourge plaguing their country," he continued. "What it does show is that as Iraqis stood up to al Qaeda, rejected foreign terrorism, (and) denied them safe haven, it had a direct impact on al Qaeda. The citizen volunteers have made a real difference."