In the last few days, American and Iraqi forces have killed three leaders of al-qa'idah fi bilad al-rafidayn - al-Qa'idah in the land of the two rivers (Mesopotamia), more commonly referred to as al-Qa'idah in Iraq, AQI. The leader of AQI Abu Ayub al-Masri and the so-called "emir" of the al-Qa'idah affiliated Islamic State of Iraq Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi were killed in Sunday near Tikrit, and soon thereafter the leader of AQI operations in the northern provinces Ahmad al-'Ubaydi was killed near Mosul.
This is welcome news, but what does it mean for the continuing Islamist insurgency in Iraq?
For a short period of time, it will cause disruption in the organization - any organization would be affected. However, AQI and its affiliated Sunni groups are made up of small cells that function fairly autonomously and unfortunately, show excellent leadership skills and flexibility. New leaders will emerge to replace the three dead insurgents. The good news is that in most cases - and we have seen this throughout al-Qa'idah over the years - the new leaders are not as capable as the leaders they replace.
It is interesting to note that al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were tracked down and killed near Tikrit, still a hot bed of Sunni insurgency. Signs like this one (left) can still be found in the area. When this photograph was initially reported by the Associated Press, the caption called it a "vandalized" image of Saddam Husayn. However, if you ask someone who can read spray-painted Arabic (I can), it actually reads, "Long live Saddam and the Ba'th [Party]."
Overall, American and Iraqi intelligence and military forces have almost destroyed AQI, thanks to the efforts associated with the surge of late 2007 and the decision on the part of Sunni tribal leaders in al-Anbar governorate to side with Baghdad against the Islamists - that became known as the Anbar Awakening.
At the same time, Shi'a groups saw the handwriting on the wall and decided not to take on the larger number of American forces in the country. They have mostly shifted their efforts to the political arena - that's another issue. According to the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, despite some high profile attacks in Baghdad, violence in the country is at its lowest levels since the American invasion in 2003.
Al-Qa'idah in Iraq is still a threat, but a much diminished one. In addition to the recent high-profile successes, Iraqi forces are taking down rank and file members of the group every day. The group's operations are now limited to the areas north of Baghdad and near Mosul.
Continued pressure by the Iraqis, with help from the United States as needed, is necessary to eliminate the threat. The Iraqi government is on the right track - they no longer want to talk to al-Qa'idah members. They are hunting them down one by one and killing them.