COMBAT OUTPOST COPPER, Iraq – It's quiet around here in farm country, south of Baghdad where Al Qaeda once held sway. Just months ago U.S. foot patrols through the wheat fields nearby would regularly draw fire — if the soldiers managed first to elude Al Qaeda-planted roadside bombs.
"The difference is night and day," says Capt. George Morris, 26. He and his soldiers in Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division walked the area this week to visit a handful of farm families five miles east of the town of Latifiyah, not far from the Tigris River.
And it's not just here. Throughout the country, Al Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgent organization thought to be affiliated with the global terrorist network but comprised mainly of Iraqis, has lost so much clout it is close to becoming irrelevant to the outcome of the war. The group has not been eliminated, however, leaving open the possibility of resurgence if the Iraqi government fails to follow up the military gains with civilian services like the irrigation that's badly needed here.
When President Bush announced in January 2007 that he was sending more than 21,000 extra U.S. combat troops to Iraq — mostly to the Baghdad area — as part of a new approach to fighting the insurgency, commanders said their No. 1 focus was degrading Al Qaeda's ability to foment sectarian violence.
In the Latifiyah area, it's not hard to see that goal appears to have been achieved — an accomplishment that adds to the expectation that Bush will be able to further reduce U.S. troop levels this fall.
Iraqi Army Capt. Jassim Hussein al-Shamari, whose men were part of Morris' foot patrol, has one explanation for Al Qaeda's fall.
"The people themselves will turn over the terrorists" if they show themselves, says al-Shamari. He's speaking through an interpreter to Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in the swath of once-violent territory stretching south of Baghdad from the Iranian border to Anbar province.
Buchanan sees it much the same way.
"The people are fed up with what they experienced under (Al Qaeda's) presence," Buchanan said, adding that the key to keeping the terrorist group down is having the government in Baghdad step in and provide more essential services, like the irrigation that farmers in the Latifiyah area find in short supply.
And there is a troubling disconnect between the central government and local leaders.
"The link to the government of Iraq is almost nonexistent here," Morris said.
So it remains an open question: Once U.S. combat forces depart, whenever that may be, will Al Qaeda find an avenue for resurgence? It is generally accepted among U.S. officers and intelligence specialists that despite its decline, Al Qaeda will remain in Iraq at some level long after the Americans are gone. The group had no meaningful foothold in the country before U.S. forces invaded in March 2003.
There is no available official estimate of the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq. A U.S. intelligence estimate early this year put it at a maximum of 6,000, although it probably has fallen far lower recently. Perhaps more importantly, U.S. officers said in a series of Associated Press interviews over the past 10 days that so many Al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed that its remnants are ineffective.
Col. Al Batschelet, chief of staff for the U.S. command overseeing military operations in the Baghdad area, said that once the leadership began disappearing, lower-level technicians were pressed into duty.
That had the effect of accelerating the group's decline: the technical experts were not as good at organizing and executing attacks, and by taking the lead they exposed themselves to being captured or killed. That, in turn, has left even less-technically skilled fighters to perform the specialized work of assembling bombs like Al Qaeda's signature weapon, the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, officers said.
The triggering mechanisms of Al Qaeda's bombs have become less sophisticated and less effective, Batschelet said. Also, vehicle-borne IEDs used to contain hundreds of pounds of explosives, but they now typically are only 25 pounds.
"They just can't get the material any more to do what they want to do," Batschelet said. "But they still try. So we are unable to say that we've defeated their will" to continue their acts of violence.
Col. Bill Hickman, commander of 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, sees much the same thing in the neighborhoods of northwest Baghdad where his soldiers have witnessed a dramatic decline in violence this year.
"There are still disrupted cells of Al Qaeda in our area," he said in an interview. "So they're active, but they're not as effective as they used to be. And their IEDs are small IEDs now."
As for eliminating Al Qaeda entirely in Iraq, "That's probably not achievable," said Batschelet.
Although U.S. and Iraqi forces have put enormous pressure on Al Qaeda by pursuing its leaders with relentless raids informed by improved intelligence this year, an even more important factor, arguably, was the decision by Sunni Arabs who had opposed the U.S. occupation to ally with the Americans against Al Qaeda.
Whether those newfound allies — dubbed Sons of Iraq by their Americans benefactors — remain in opposition to the Sunni extremists, or decide to switch sides again, will tell much about Al Qaeda's future in Iraq.
Either way, however, the moment seems to have passed when Al Qaeda could prevail in this conflict. It has been forced out of its original strongholds in Anbar province, and more recently it has lost Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, although it still can pull off a deadly attack there and elsewhere.
Stephen Biddle, an Iraq watcher in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview that without an urban hideout, Al Qaeda is reduced to the role of being "furtive terrorists."
"If they don't have an urban area with a friendly population that can enable them to operate" — and from which to recruit fighters — "then they're going to be isolated terrorist actors," Biddle said. Thus, eliminating them entirely need not be the goal of U.S. commanders and the Iraqi government.
"That's not central to the outcome of the war," Biddle said.