BAGHDAD — The Iraqi insurgency remains a potent threat to U.S. forces, but in the months since the death of its flamboyant symbol, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the insurgency's aura has been eclipsed by the widening sectarian fighting between Shiites and Sunnis, American and Iraqi officials say.
The insurgency has increased its use of roadside bombs against U.S. and Iraqi forces since Zarqawi's death in June, and in some ways is stronger than when he was alive. But it lacks the mix of media savvy and spectacular explosions that the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq used to inflate the image of the insurgency beyond its military capabilities.
These days U.S. forces and ordinary Iraqis are increasingly transfixed by the danger of a full-blown civil war. Sectarian killings in July accounted for most of the nation's nearly 3,500 deaths, the highest monthly toll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. An ongoing joint military offensive against death squads and sectarian militias in Baghdad is viewed as key to bringing stability to Iraq.
"The sectarian violence is at such a decibel level that people aren't hearing the Al Qaeda in Iraq violence," said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It hasn't gone away, but you can't hear it over the din."
The rising strife is partly ingrained in the Zarqawi legacy. One of his aims was to use the Sunni Muslim insurgency to instigate civil war through assassinations, suicide bombings and attacks on Shiite Muslim religious symbols, including the February attack on a shrine in Samarra that unleashed a tide of sectarian killing. These operations coincided with the majority Shiites winning key government posts such as the head of the Interior Ministry, which is accused of running a network of death squads against Sunnis.
"By the time of Zarqawi's death, Al Qaeda in Iraq had already been reduced to one of many groups in a broader Sunni insurgency," said Thomas Donnelly, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But then the Shiite extremists also shared Zarqawi's desire to create a civil war to undermine U.S. interests.... Zarqawi may have accelerated the sectarian divisions."
A composite picture of the insurgency has emerged since the Jordanian-born militant was killed June 7 when two 500-pound bombs struck his hide-out near Baqubah. The movement lost a wily strategist, but his successor, whom U.S. officials identify as Abu Ayyub Masri, an Egyptian, appears more flexible in recruitment. And the insurgency's roadside bombings and ambushes have become more dogged, if less flashy.
"Zarqawi was a hard-liner in his recruitment practices," said a Pentagon consultant who requested anonymity. "This [new] guy is using a big-tent approach. People who were previously excluded from Al Qaeda in Iraq because they lack exceeding levels of fanaticism are now allowed in."
Mohammed Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said: "The guys who have come after Zarqawi want to prove they're not inferior to him. They have changed nothing. They still use suicide bombs, target civilians and stir up sectarian divisions. They're starting to use more mortars and some small rockets."
This arsenal, much of it emanating from the Sunni stronghold of Al Anbar province, has undermined the credibility of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government and its U.S.-trained armed forces.
"From the big picture, things continue on," said a U.S. government intelligence official in Washington. "The insurgency continues to gain capacity and strength."
A political leader from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the northern city of Mosul, who met with Zarqawi in government negotiations on the insurgency, said the rebellion might be more potent without him.
"There are more bombings since Zarqawi's death and more dead bodies. These numbers keep going up, which is an indication that Zarqawi was not as clever as everyone thought," said the politician, who declined to be identified. "Zarqawi was a banner in the breeze around which the insurgency as terrorists gathered." The civilian death toll in Baghdad is a measure of the devastating mix of insurgent and sectarian bloodshed. The city's morgue recorded more than 1,850 violent deaths in July, nearly a 20% increase over June.
The lines have long been blurred among the disparate factions in the insurgency, made up of largely of Sunnis formerly allied with ousted President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq was believed to have been made up of about 1,500 foreign fighters, and Masri, who trained in Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, is viewed as a sign of the continued interest by foreign militants.
Some analysts suggest that the United States has focused too much on Al Qaeda in Iraq and not enough on the Iraqi nationalists who are the driving force against the U.S.-led military effort.