BAGHDAD // Al Qa'eda is planning to attack the Green Zone in Baghdad, in a move it believes will cripple the government as US troops prepare to draw back this summer, Iraqi security officials and analysts have warned.
Islamist militants have successfully carried out a series of deadly strikes in the Iraqi capital recently, including a prolonged raid on the heavily defended central bank last month. The bank attack, mixing suicide bombers and commando-style infantry tactics, surprised Iraqi troops, who battled the well-trained guerilla fighters for more than three hours despite heavily outnumbering them. Although the gunmen were eventually beaten back, the fact they were able to shoot their way into the bank's fortified main compound in the heart of Baghdad alarmed the security forces, which are deployed in massive numbers across the capital.
Officials now think al Qa'eda, bolstered by that attack, wants to stage a similar raid on the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and home to the US Embassy. Such an attack, if pulled off, would be a highly symbolic display of the militants' power and of the government's vulnerability. "Al Qa'eda is now more focused on the Green Zone, after the central bank attack," said Major Gen Qassim Attar, the spokesman for Baghdad Operations Command, the office in charge of overseeing security in the capital.
"This latest attack [on the central bank] made us believe that they are prepared to attack the Green Zone at any moment. It represents to them the modern face of Baghdad so they look to attack it whenever they have the chance." Captured Islamist militants interrogated by Iraqi forces had confirmed the existence of such plans, Gen Atta said. The Green Zone has come to exemplify US occupation and the new political order in Iraq. A vast swathe of central Baghdad, including palaces built by Saddam Hussein, was sealed off by US forces after their arrival in 2003 and turned into a fortress. It took its name from US military parlance as one of the few places where soldiers could put their weapons in safe or "green" mode. Outside, they would enter the dangerous "red zone", their weapons made ready for shooting.
As the country descended into murderous chaos - Baghdad especially morphing into a brutal killing field between 2004 and 2007 - US military spokesmen and Iraqi officials alike would, from the safety of the Green Zone, issue empty proclamations about the improving security situation. In that way, the Green Zone also became symbolic of the huge distance between the lives of privileged politicians and ordinary people, who saw - and still see - the area as haven of wealth and power hoarded by the elite.
US forces stopped defending entry points to the Green Zone last month, leaving the job in the hands of their Iraqi counterparts, although US troops do still protect the huge US Embassy. That security handover, coupled with continued drawn-out negotiations over the formation of the next government has, some observers fear, weakened defences and, at the same time, added greater incentive for an attack.
Qassam Muhammad al Samaraie, a former leader of the Sahwa Council group in Adhamiyah, a neighbourhood once notorious as an al Qa'eda stronghold and the scene of last week's bombings against Shiite pilgrims, said: "With the central bank, al Qa'eda put everyone on notice that they have the ability and courage to make a complicated attack against a hard target." Mr al Samaraie led tribal forces allied with the US army against the militants, pushing them out of the area, and is familiar with their methods and motivations. He said he considered the central bank raid to be a practice run for an attack on the Green zone.
"Al Qa'eda wants to break into the Green Zone and fight there, to prove to everyone there is no place beyond their reach," he said. "They don't have to take it over or defeat all the soldiers, they just have to make a big enough breach in security for people to notice." "If they make that breach - and it is possible they could achieve it - the Iraqi government could even fall while people's confidence in the authorities would disappear."
Baghdad security officials insist they have sufficient strength to protect the area against any foreseeable attack, and that defences have not deteriorated since US guards were withdrawn. Additionally, they point to successes against al Qa'eda in Iraq, with a string of leading militants arrested or killed this year. Mortar attacks on the Green Zone are fairly common and bombs have been smuggled inside, as in April 2007 when the parliament building was hit. But there has never been a sustained raid on the area.
"We can protect the Green Zone and the people working inside it," Maj Gen Atta said. "We have taken the necessary measures and made the right plans." That assertion was questioned by Ahmed Yassin al Qaisi, a professor of political science at Baghdad's Mustansariyah University who has studied al Qa'eda in Iraq. "I believe the terrorists can reach the heart of the Green Zone, they still have the leadership and the fighters to do that," he said. "It would be a hit-and-run operation, that's all they need."
Mr al Qaisi said he also believed Islamist militants were newly focused on Baghdad and government buildings. "They want to get at the centre of the government, they want to cut the head of the snake, as they see it," he said. "This is the perfect time for them to do it, with the Americans going and the Iraqi politicians squabbling with each other over who should run the country." Security measures for the Green Zone have been doubted by some of the troops tasked with protecting it. One enlisted soldier said he and many of his colleagues would not stand and fight if put under a sustained attack.
He described his unit as low in morale and unwilling to die for the government personnel they were guarding. "If al Qa'eda came at us like they did at the bank, with suicide bombers and [gunmen] attackers. They could overcome us," he said. "To be honest, not many of us are prepared to die for the government officials. "We stand in the heat all day for little pay and watch them drive past in their expensive new cars and clothes. They're thieves, working for themselves not the country, so we feel no loyalty to them.
"I'm not alone in thinking this, the soldiers could abandon their posts at any time. We'd fight to save good leaders, but not these people." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org