BAGHDAD — As U.S. combat forces leave the country, al Qaida in Iraq appears to be creeping back into the Iraqi capital in a bold campaign of shootings, bombings and intimidation focused on undermining Baghdad's developing police force.
Near-daily attacks on police in Baghdad and Anbar province, west of the capital, have killed almost 30 police officers in the past two weeks.
U.S. military officials say those attacks have increased as the police have taken more responsibility from the Iraqi army, a move intended to allow Iraqi soldiers to move out of the cities eventually and defend Iraq's borders.
"It's certainly about intimidation of the population and the police and certainly about al Qaida trying to reassert themselves in areas where they've been limited in freedom of movement," said Maj. Gen. Steve Lanza, spokesman for American forces in Iraq.
Never miss a local story.
Lanza said that the fact that security forces had remained at their posts during the attacks — unlike during the height of the insurgency, when they commonly abandoned them — was evidence of a maturing Iraqi police force and army.
By next week, all U.S. combat troops are due to have left Iraq ahead of a Sept. 1 deadline in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement. The focus of American and Iraqi officials, though, is on keeping some of the remaining 50,000 U.S. forces here after a deadline at the end of next year.
On Wednesday, a senior Iraqi military leader, Gen. Babaker Zubari, said publicly what most Iraqi officials say more privately: that he thought there'd be a need for a continuing U.S. presence after 2011. Under current plans to expand Iraq's armed forces, destroyed and dismantled by the U.S. in the war, Iraq won't have be capable of securing its land borders and air space for almost another decade.
Along a main road in Baghdad's largely Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Adhamiya, presumed al Qaida in Iraq fighters blazed a trail of destruction at the end of July, laying roadside bombs, fatally shooting police and soldiers at three checkpoints and setting fire to bodies before leaving an al Qaida-linked flag, according to witnesses and officials.
"There were about 30 gunmen. They attacked all four checkpoints at the same time, policeman Dhia Kuthayar said of the midafternoon attack. "I called in for reinforcements. Our orders were not to move from our post. If I had been able to kill just one of them, I would have, even if I had to die doing it."
The Adhamiya attack was followed by another at a checkpoint in the West Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, formerly the diplomatic district, which killed five police officers after gunmen with silencers opened fire. Witnesses said the attackers left the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, a group that's affiliated with al Qaida in Iraq, at the scene.
As part of their campaign of intimidation, the attacks also have targeted police officers' homes and families. In Fallujah, a policeman, his wife and 4-year-old daughter were killed in their home. In Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad, another officer and his wife died when gunmen stormed their house.
In Adhamiya this week, Iraqi police working 24-hour shifts, some dressed in short-sleeved shirts and sandals, posted guard along the streets as a hot wind whipped up the dust. By late morning the temperature was already almost 120 degrees.
"Of course it's al Qaida. They want to send a message that they are still here," policeman Hussein Kathem said, referring to the attacks. "They don't have a shape; they keep shifting. If we knew who they were we could fight them."
Police in the neighborhood said that about 20 security people contracted to the police force — former members of the Sunni Awakening, a paramilitary force that the Iraqi government long has promised to transition to the regular security forces — quit after the attacks.
"They only make 300,000 dinars a month (about $240). They decided it wasn't worth it," Kuthayar said. Regular police make more than twice that, although it's still not enough, they say, even to afford electricity for their homes.
Kuthayar said, however, that unlike the Iraq of a few years ago, when the police disintegrated in the face of attacks and some army units refused to fight, the security forces were much more resilient now.
"Before we didn't have a state," he said. "Now we have the police, the army, intelligence, all the institutions of a state."
He and his colleagues said, though, that the biggest problem was the lack of a government and rampant corruption. More than five months after Iraqis went to the polls, political leaders are still fighting over who has the right to lead a coalition government.
At the Dream barbershop off the main road in Adhamiya, owner Arkan Mohammad was having the windows replaced after the checkpoint attacks, the sixth time they've been shattered.
During the height of the fighting in 2006, Mohammad left for Syria. When he found that country overcrowded with Iraqis, he went to Yemen to work as a barber before returning two years ago to find his shop destroyed. He said he didn't think that al Qaida in Iraq would be able to take root again in neighborhoods such as Adhamiya the way it did when people turned to Sunni insurgents or Shiite Muslim militias for protection.
"I don't think people will receive al Qaida like they did before," he said during one of the long electricity blackouts. "People now understand that al Qaida is wrong."
He said he thought that Iraq was too unstable for U.S. combat forces to withdraw right now.
"I would prefer that they not leave," he said. "When the government is formed, then they can leave."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY