CNN: Al Qaeda collapsing in Anbar?

An amazing clip, not only given the source but the stakes:

A U.S. troop pullout from Iraq would leave the country as a potent launchpad for international terrorism and Washington would be forced to go back in within a couple of years, a leading al Qaeda expert said on Tuesday.

Rohan Gunaratna told a security conference at Lloyd’s of London insurance market that Iraq, like Afghanistan in the 1990s, would become a “terrorist Disneyland” where al Qaeda could build up its strength unchallenged.

If U.S., British and other coalition troops withdrew from Iraq in the next year, he said, “certainly the scale of attacks that would be mounted inside Iraq, and using Iraq as a launching pad to strike other Western countries — countries in Europe, North America – would become such that after two or three years, the U.S. forces will have to go back to Iraq.”

Here’s Nic Robertson on the scene in Anbar province tracking the progress of “the awakening.” This is where Gunaratna’s launching pad will be built if the troops are ordered out before the Sunnis have secured the area. Norm Coleman promised an audience in Minneapolis last night that American troops will be out of Baghdad by 2008 even if that means a new Rwanda. Credit him, at least, for framing the terms of the debate accurately.

One part CNN didn’t mention: if you believe Jalal Talabani, the government’s also having some success now in negotiating with non-AQ elements of the insurgency. That could just be him blowing smoke to show the war skeptics in America a sign of progress, but his point about insurgents starting to worry more about Iranian influence than American rings true. In fact, in what may be the best proof of CNN’s point, the most fanatic jihadist Sunni cleric in Iraq tells Time magazine that even he’s finished with AQ now.

As leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the largest Sunni clerical body, [Harith] al-Dari is the sect’s most prominent figure in Iraq. Many U.S. military commanders and Iraqi government officials believe he is the spiritual head of the insurgency, and accuse his son Muthanna of personally commanding a deadly terror group known as the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution (named after an anti-British uprising led by Harith al-Dari’s grandfather). Both al-Daris deny direct connection with the Brigades, but say Sunni insurgent groups are part of a legitimate, nationalist resistance to occupation. He has given religious sanction to some of the insurgency’s more controversial tactics, such as kidnapping and killing foreigners, citing precedents from Islamic history…

Al-Dari says the “harsh actions” — suicide bombings and attacks on civilian targets — of al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters in Iraq are “unacceptable.” He also accuses the group of trying to take over sole command of the fight against the Americans, pushing aside home-grown insurgent groups. But there may also be a personal reason for al-Dari’s change of heart: his nephew, also known as Harith and a top commander of the Brigades, was murdered by al-Qaeda in March.

I blogged about his nephew’s murder at the time; the whole al-Dari tribe, it seems is split between pro- and anti-AQ factions, with uncle Harith leading the sympathizers — until now. Don’t expect him to be negotiating with the U.S., though: he still hates the occupation, although, per Talabani, he seems to hate the “Persians” in the Iraqi government more. Baby steps, I guess.

Speaking of Iranian influence, I’m going to leave you with the must-read of the day. It’s probably overblown, but so sweet and so perfectly in line with one of the key goals of the U.S. invasion that I can’t resist. Too good to be true?

Iran’s ruling clerics have long prided themselves on running the world’s only Shi’ite Muslim state — a state that imposes religion, dictating what imams can preach, what the media can report, and what people can wear.

So some Iranians are intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi’ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq, where — Iraq’s myriad problems aside — imams can say whatever they want in political Friday sermons, newspapers and satellite channels regularly slam the government, and religious observance is respected and encouraged but not required.

In Tehran’s storied central bazaar, an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric — rather than to clerics closer to Iran’s state power structure, said Jawad al-Ghaie, 48, a wholesaler of false eyelashes and nail extensions and a respected lay donor…

[E]ver since US-sponsored elections brought the Shi’ite majority to power, Iraq’s imperfect liberation has quietly influenced the debate among religious Shi’ites about the role of religion in government…

“We believe that politics is separate from religion,” said Iraq’s ambassador to Iran, Mohammed Majid al-Sheikh. “Of course there are debates about this. If Iran wants to take on these debates, it will benefit. And I could say that the experiment of Iraq will ripple throughout the Middle East.”