For the few remaining stalwarts who continue to defend the invasion of Iraq, reality reasserted itself. Last night, an estimated 500-1,000 members of Al-Qaeda awaiting execution escaped from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Their escape was made possible due to a brazen and sophisticated operation by a group called Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), involving suicide bombers, RPGs, and mortars. Suicide bombers breached the gate of the compound as security was shelled by mortar fire and police reinforcements were ambushed. Meanwhile, 20 miles to the north, a simultaneous assault was taking place on a prison in Taji, though it is unclear if any prisoners escaped there. Iraqi security forces required 10 hours and the use of helicopters to restore order at Abu Ghraib, supposedly a high-security prison.
Following the assault, which killed at least 40 people, Al-Qaeda has replenished its ranks and won a devastating propaganda victory against the Maliki government. After 10 long years of fighting and the loss of thousands of American lives, Iraq is descending into a breeding ground for terrorism and extremists.
The jail break demonstrates that AQI has reached a new level of power and brazenness, and raises questions about the government's ability to keep control less than two years after the U.S military left the country. Ironically, Al Qaeda was insignificant in Iraq before the US inva.ded in 2003. In fact, AQI was actually started in response to the U.S. invasion that year and was first led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi, the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings and beheadings in Iraq, was killed by a targeted U.S. airstrike in June 2006. Still, his network of semi-autonomous militant groups continued to attack coalition forces and foment anti-Shiite violence.
With the U.S. out of its way, AQI’s numbers have more than doubled from the estimated 800-1000 fighters when the U.S. troops withdrew to approximately 2,500 fighters today. A Sunni Muslim group, it has attacked mainly Shiite civilians and assets of the Shia-led government, and the scale and violence have steadily increased, raising fears of all-out sectarian-based civil war. Thousands have been killed in the past few months, with the death tolls hitting levels not seen since the sectarian violence that led to the surge of US forces in 2007.
The chaos in Iraq must weigh heavily on the minds of U.S. officials as they negotiate the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. It was the Russian invasion of that country, and the U.S.-funded mujahedeen resistance, that led to Al-Qaeda making their home there amid the chaos of the war and the Russian withdrawal, which left a power vacuum. While the country and times are different, once again the U.S. faces a situation in which extremists are exploiting the chaos left in the wake of occupation. As illustrated by AQI's recent entrance into Syria’s ongoing civil war, it is clear that as Iraq continues to teeter on the edge of total failure, our disastrous 2003 invasion will haunt U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future.