BAGHDAD – Iraq's top security official called Saturday for a shift from major military operations to a "war of intelligence" to track down remaining extremist cells responsible for attacks such as those that killed 60 people in the past week in the Baghdad area.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani also warned that his ministry has been forced to put on hold some of its plans to recruit more police due to cuts in the government's 2009 budget prompted by plummeting oil prices.
Al-Bolani's call came after suicide bombers struck twice -- once last Sunday near the Baghdad police academy and again on Tuesday in an attack targeting Sunni and Shiite sheiks touring an outdoor market after a reconciliation meeting.
A total of about 60 people were killed in the two attacks, which followed weeks of relative calm in the capital.
In an interview with The Associated Press, al-Bolani said it appears that Al Qaeda in Iraq is unleashing sleeper cells in a bid to reassert itself after being routed in recent U.S.-Iraqi military operations. He said the key to defeating the insurgents lies in better intelligence, not more wide-scale fighting.
"I do believe that launching major military operations against Al Qaeda is no longer needed and that there is a need to activate the intelligence side," al-Bolani said in an interview at his office in a former Saddam Hussein palace on the edge of Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.
"There are some Al Qaeda sleeper cells who are refreshing their activities to prove that they are still able to conduct attacks," al-Bolani said. "The only challenges we are facing (from them) are the suicide bombers and car bombs."
Al-Bolani appealed for more intelligence support from U.S.-led forces, although he noted that "Iraqis have acquired good experience over the past years."
An Al Qaeda front group claimed responsibility for the Sunday attack.
Iraqi forces also have evidence that hard-line Shiite militants are regrouping in Baghdad and some southern provinces like Maysan and Basra, he said.
He was referring to small but well-organized groups that split off from the movement led by Shiite firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. officials believe those groups are funded and trained by Iran. The Iranians have denied any links to Shiite extremists in Iraq.
The splinter "special groups" continued attacks against U.S.-led forces even after the anti-U.S. cleric declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2007 and then disbanded his Mahdi Army last year.
The two major factions are Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, and Kataeb Hezbollah.
"There are limited activities for these groups in Baghdad, Amarah and Basra but they are being monitored by the security forces, which conduct operations against them," he added without elaborating. Amarah is the provincial capital of Maysan.
The Interior Ministry had planned to attract more police recruits to increase its force of nearly 500,000 with the goal of establishing a police brigade in each province.
But al-Bolani said those plans were on hold and the ministry would focus instead on developing the forces it has and redeploying units to areas with the most need.
"We hope that by the middle of this year oil prices will increase to bring in funds to help us implement these plans," he said.
Iraq's parliament passed a $58.6 billion budget earlier this month. The original spending plan of $79 billion had to be reduced as oil prices plunged from a mid-July high of $150 a barrel to about $46.
Al-Bolani, a Shiite, boasted that he has succeeded in changing his ministry's bad reputation as a sectarian institution that had been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen.
So far, about 62,000 ministry employees have been sacked for reasons ranging from sectarianism and links to militias to human rights violations since he took office in 2006, he said.
"I'm happy to have reached this stage but there are still challenges to overcome to build our security forces -- and that needs time and huge resources," he said.