Iraq, a nation that has endured a steady barrage of al-Qaeda assaults that has claimed thousands of lives, reacted to the killing of Osama bin Laden this week with a mixture of relief and anger amid fears of further attacks.
On May 4, four days after United States president Barack Obama announced the al-Qaeda leader had been killed in a bold and secretive mission in Pakistan, a suicide bomber targeted the directorate of emergency police in Hilla, Babil province, killing 15 and injuring 68. Most were policemen, according to authorities.
“This is al-Qaeda’s reaction to bin Laden’s killing,” Kadhim Toman, chairman of Babil provincial council, told IWPR as he glanced at the collapsed building. “We are expecting an increase in terrorist attacks as a result of Bin Laden’s killing.”
The province was once a stronghold of Sunni militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda during the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq as early as 2005.
Iraqi security forces have been put on high alert for possible retaliation from Islamic extreme groups since American commandos killed Bin Laden. Major General Qassim Atta, spokesman of the Baghdad Operations Command, said in a press conference earlier this week that Iraq is taking “precautionary measures”, without giving further details.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh told the Iraqi news agency Aswat al-Iraq that Bin Laden’s killing would not affect the security situation in Iraq because the organisation has been weakened – but he suggested that this might not remain the case.
“His death was expected because he had a lot of blood on his hands,” Dabagh was quoted as saying.
“[Bin Laden] will be a forgotten figure. [Although] there are new al-Qaeda leaders who belong to a generation after him and are even more blood thirsty and more extreme.”
While Bin Laden himself is not believed to have ever set foot in Iraq, the country became one of his main battlefields.
Following the 2003 invasion, al-Qaeda and its affiliates launched massive insurgent operations that targeted US, foreign and Iraqi troops as well as civilians.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed by al-Qaeda’s hallmark suicide bombings and targeted killings. Among the most notorious acts was the February 2006 bombing of the Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which ignited a sectarian war that created the worst refugee crisis in Iraq’s modern history.
In the streets of Baghdad, a city that has been profoundly impacted by al-Qaeda, Bin Laden’s death was the topic of discussion this week. Reactions to the killing ranged from happiness to anger to conspiracy theories about possible motives behind his death.
“I’m very happy about his death, but it will not bring back my brother’s life,” said 31-year-old Ahmed Abdul-Qadir, a resident of Baghdad’s al-Adhamiya neighbourhood whose brother was killed by an al-Qaeda affiliated group in 2009 because he was a member of Sahwa.
Sahwa, also known as the Awakening Councils, were militias that abandoned the Sunni insurgency in 2006 after receiving US assistance to fight al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups.
“If it were up to me even his supporters should be killed because they are tools for him to commit crimes,” he said. “I believe his death is a huge blow to those criminals who were glorifying his name.”
“The man fought Americans and injustices in the world,” countered Saad Jabar, 43, a resident of al-Tarmiya neighbourhood in north Baghdad. “He is closer to us than America because he is a Muslim. America insulted his body by throwing it into the sea and that affected many people.”
Conspiracy theories as to why Bin Laden met his fate were also floated. Ahmed Lahib, 25, said the end of Osama bin Laden was “an American game to achieve their next goal”.
“He was their son and they supported him in Afghanistan,” he said of Bin Laden’s history of fighting the former Soviet Union with American backing in the 1980s. “They had disagreements and decided to kill him.”
Beyond the mood of the streets and government’s claim that Bin Laden’s death would not impact the security situation in Iraq, analysts said al-Qaeda still poses an enormous threat to the country.
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq operates independently because most of its leaders who were in direct contact with Bin Laden have been killed,” said Ali Haidar, a security analyst. “The biggest danger is if an Iraqi or Saudi takes the leadership of al-Qaeda. At that point, I believe things would change and Iraq would once again become a battlefield for al-Qaeda and its operations.”
Ahmed al-Hais, chairman of the Anbar Salvation Council, a Sahwa group, said that many countries will be influenced by the death of Bin Laden,
“He is not an ordinary Muslim figure and will put many countries on security alert,” he said. “We need a serious effort to eradicate his ideology.”
“Bin Laden’s death may not have a significant impact on the security situation,” said Ahmed Ali, 24, from Baghdad’s Sayidia neighbourhood. “But it is a great moral boost for families in our area who were changing their lifestyles for fear of al-Qaeda. Extremists are declining.”
Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR editor in Baghdad. Haider al-Badri, a freelance reporter, contributed to this report from Babil.