ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — As early voting begins for the Iraq election this weekend, tribal sheiks say Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) is alive and well on the outskirts of Baghdad - a belt of communities crucial to the capital's security.
While attacks have declined dramatically over the past two years across Iraq, in areas such as Abu Ghraib political attacks have added to the lethal mix of Al Qaida intimidation and violent crime in the run-up to Sunday's national election.
"We can't go to the Abu Ghraib hospital or go to the market. At night the men stay up with rifles protecting their houses and their families," says Sheikh Hakem al-Jabouri, who says members of his Shiite tribe drive into Shiite areas of Baghdad to do their shopping and haven't been to the Abu Ghraib hospital for four years because the area is controlled by Al Qaida. "We would be killed there," he says.
On Thursday morning, suicide bombers hit two early polling places in Baghdad and killed at least seven people. Early voting is for soldiers, police, and others who may not be able to get to the polls on election day. That followed a larger attack on Wednesday in the northern city of Baqouba, where suicide bombers killed more than 33 people and wounded 50 in attacks on police targets and a hospital.
Although US and Iraqi forces have diminished the capability of AQI and other extremist groups, Al Qaida has proved it is still able to launch destabilizing attacks. While Abu Ghraib - a city of 200,000 just west of Baghdad - is not the insurgent stronghold it was three years ago when tribal members rose up against AQI, it is still considered a bedroom community for insurgents, who are believed to use it as a base to launch attacks in Baghdad and other places.
"Our biggest problem is Al Qaida," says Sheikh Na'man al-Awaisi, a Sunni tribal leader who was wounded two years ago when a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a tribal meeting. Three of the sheikhs were killed.
"They don't fight us out in the open - they just hunt their targets," he says, displaying the scars on his hands from the shrapnel. "They plant IEDs in the night and place bombs under cars," he says.
ATTACKS MEANT TO 'SHAPE ELECTION'
The Pentagon in its latest quarterly report to Congress on security and stability in Iraq wrote that "even though insurgent and militant activities in Iraq continue to decline, the environment remains dangerous."
That statement is particularly true in areas which had been AQI safe havens and which control access to the capital. Abu Ghraib, whose name became synonymous with the prison based there, is a prime example.
Figures provided by the US military show five to nine assassination attempts a week over the past month in the area, most of them using pistols with silencers or improvised explosive devices. The local police chief was transferred after three policemen were killed and several more wounded in an attack last month.
"Since the end of January and through February we have seen a majority of our (significant activities) related to assassination attempts," says US Army Captain Christopher Ophardt, with the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He says the military expects the attacks, largely against police, government officials, and candidates' relatives, to continue until a new government is formed.
The attacks, many of them with bombs magnetically attached to cars or gates, are meant to "shape the election and the outcome of it," says brigade deputy commander Lt. Col. Darron Wright. "It's not specifically in Abu Ghraib but throughout Baghdad."
AQI EXPLOITING GAPS IN SECURITY AFTER U.S. WITHDRAWAL
The largely ineffective police force doesn't coordinate with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and neither of them coordinates with the tribes, said the sheikhs at a recent tribal support council meeting - a mix of Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders in the majority Sunni area.
Late last year, 13 members of one tribe were abducted and executed by men dressed in Iraqi Army uniforms.
US military officials had said the execution-style killings indicated that AQI was exploiting the gaps between US forces as they withdrew from the cities and improving but still uneven Iraqi security forces.
In the absence of the ability to eradicate the insurgents, life has become a cat and mouse game here. So much so that the US military has disseminated information to the population on how to check for booby traps under cars and in homes.
"We're always alert - we know the areas where Al Qaida is and how to avoid them," says Awaisi.
The organization operates by recruiting young men and even boys as young as 12 within the tribes. "They are just teenagers so they can control their minds," said Sheikh Hussein al-Tamimi, head of the Abu Ghraib tribal support council.
Thousands of families, many of them Shiite, left for other cities during Iraq's civil war. Only 20 to 30 percent of them have returned.
In the combustible mix that plunged the country into a war within a war, Shiite militias were pitted against Sunni insurgents. The tribes either joined in or stood on the sidelines before the organization of the Awakening movement, in which they largely turned against Al Qaida. Both Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders believe that in the life and death stakes of this election campaign militias - all of them connected to major political parties - still have a part.
"The big parties that have militias can kill people but the independent candidates can't. If a candidate's own interests collide with theirs then they will try to kill him," says one of the sheikhs, who spoke openly on other matters but did not want to be quoted by name mentioning the militias.
"Their whole goal and aim is to ignite this place the way it was in 2006 and 2007," says Wright. "That's their tactic and it also serves to delegitimize the government and to show Iraq-wide that your government as well as the Iraqi security forces cannot provide for your protection and your security."
In Sheikh Tamimi's view there's a difference between Al Qaida's indiscriminate killing and more political sectarian violence.
"Al Qaida kills Sunnis because they are disloyal, they kill Shiites because they're rejectionists and infidels, they kill Christians because the Christians don't support them...they kill everyone," he says.