Reporting from Jarf Sakhr, Iraq — Sheik Sabah Janabi wears a painful-looking metal brace on his left hand, its rods pressing into the puffy flesh like the spring on a mousetrap. He fumbles a Marlboro from a pack with his good hand, sucks in the smoke and frowns.
In this farming town that was a center of extremism when Iraq fell into its nihilistic civil war, Janabi sits in a darkened room, his white shirt half tucked in and his blue tie slightly askew. He talks about how gunmen tried to kill him three months ago and describes himself as a leader under siege.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is back from the dead.
Once vanquished by Janabi and other Sunni Arab fighters who joined the U.S.-backed Awakening movement, the Islamic militant group is carving out new sanctuaries here in the farmlands south of Baghdad, in the deserts to the west and in the mountains to the east.
Almost weekly, suicide bombers wage war in the Iraqi capital. Tribal leaders, local officials and some U.S. officers worry that Al Qaeda in Iraq has successfully exploited the country's six-month political vacuum and anger over arrests of Awakening members in Sunni areas to establish its new foothold.
"We went a lengthy time without huge car bombs, and suddenly we are getting them," a senior U.S. officer said. "Without good support for the Awakening, Qaeda is starting to morph back into areas."
Although Al Qaeda in Iraq is nowhere near its level of power in 2005 and 2006, when it controlled large swaths of territory in Baghdad and other cities, its ability to once more establish havens is an ominous sign that could point to the possible renewal of the country's sectarian war if the political void persists and communal resentments are not addressed.
The disenchantment of Iraq's minority Sunnis, who benefited under President Saddam Hussein and provided the ballast for the insurgency after U.S.-led forces ousted him in 2003, is ripe for exploitation.
"It's still self-defense and survival," the U.S. officer said. "The American military isn't on the scene. The Iraqi security forces are still not trusted in most areas, and the government of Iraq is absent. It doesn't mean they are joining Qaeda, but it means that some are not acting against Qaeda so Qaeda doesn't do anything against their families."
Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said security forces were aware of the return of Al Qaeda in Iraq to Diyala and Anbar provinces and south of Baghdad. But he insisted that his commanders were on top of the situation.
"We have to recognize that we are dealing with the third generation of Al Qaeda that is more advanced, so we have to deal with this," Obeidi said. "There are definite signs of regeneration."
In western Iraq's Anbar province, where Al Qaeda in Iraq was dealt a knockout blow in 2007, security officials, prominent sheiks and former insurgents warn that the group, along with Hussein's Baath Party, has infiltrated the police force and has sleeper cells in command positions. Some of them speak of Al Qaeda's ability to move freely and potentially to overrun at least two cities for several hours.
In Diyala, to the north and east of Baghdad, areas have been marred by car bombings and several beheadings, including one of a Sunni cleric. Two weeks ago, Al Qaeda fighters killed eight Awakening members and then paraded and planted a black flag in the town of Sharaban. The group is now seen as having loose control in some of the province's mountains and has a substantial presence in the suburbs around its capital, Baqubah.
Al Qaeda in Iraq's rekindled influence can be traced back a year in Jarf Sakhr and other places, after the Shiite-led Iraqi government finished taking over the Awakening program nationwide in the spring of 2009. Soon army raids intensified in Sunni communities and Awakening salaries were often paid late. Progress on incorporating Awakening members into the security forces was tepid at best. The ranks of the paramilitary group were diminished, and Al Qaeda in Iraq used the opening to reassert itself.
"Villagers and simple people go to those people they are afraid of. They are terrified of Qaeda," said a former insurgent leader, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. "They are always going with the one who is strongest."
Two years ago, Sheik Janabi was mighty and Al Qaeda was weak. He claimed the loyalty of hundreds of men. Now his world is crumbling.
The players who put him on his pedestal have faded away: The Americans are mostly gone, and his backers from insurgent groups that fought Al Qaeda have left or been severely weakened. Some locals resent him and the power he amassed.
He has little to show for his tribesmen. Electricity is sparse; there are no hospitals and no jobs. Some have defected to Al Qaeda for money, others out of fear, frustration with Janabi or hatred of the government.
Two of his brothers have been killed. Janabi nearly met the same fate.