On March 17th Al Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) set off a truck bomb, including chlorine gas canisters, in a Sunni marketplace. Though everyone affected by the gas walked away, there were about 250 injured, and the attack happened on the 19th anniversary, to the day, of Saddam's use of poison gas against the Kurds at Halabja. Local Sunnis were appalled and furious.
Think about that for a moment. If insurgents are the fish, and the community is the sea in which they swim, then AQI just showed an incredible level of desperation -- attacking its own potential constituents, applying a uniquely repellent form of attack, and emulating Saddam on the anniversary of one of his worst atrocities, into the bargain. What were they thinking?
Or consider another recent attack, where extremists bombed a Sunni moderate mosque because its Imam dared to suggest that maybe it's time to stop fighting, that there is an honorable path of resistance through political participation and the ballot box rather than pointless violence. Many Sunnis were killed -- again, extremists targeting moderates for fear that they are about to lose the influence conferred by intimidation.
Both of these attacks were political "own goals" for the terrorists - the mask is slipping, and people are seeing the real face beneath.
With this kind of inept political action by the insurgents, it's small wonder that in al Anbar, where only one out of 18 major tribes supported the Iraqi government a year ago, today 14 out of the 18 tribes are actively securing their people, providing recruits to the Iraqi police and hunting down al Qa'ida.
And then there are the car bombings in market places. Since the cooperative coalition-Iraqi effort to secure Baghdad's population, extremists have continued trying to target Shi'a communities, particularly markets. But efforts to harden market places and public areas have paid dividends -- almost all the recent bombs exploded at checkpoints well away from their intended targets, killing far fewer people than intended, and far fewer than in similar attacks last year. And several failed to explode at all, showing a loss of skill as key bomb-makers are taken off the streets.
To cap it off, this week coalition forces captured the leader of the Rusafa car bomb network, the AQI organization responsible for some of the most horrific recent bombings in East Baghdad. Along with captures of bomb-making gear, explosives, and a vehicle rigged as a bomb, this puts a severe dent in the network's capabilities.
What does this all mean? Well, as I have previously said, car bombs -- in terms of size and frequency -- are not a good indicator of progress since it will always remain possible to pull off an attack, even when all other aspects of security have developed fully. So as professionals we need to be wary of rushing to judgment, either positive or negative, here. But events of the past few weeks tend to suggest that the extremists have begun targeting their own potential supporters, indicating a degree of political desperation, and a likely drop in support. And the attacks -- though still atrocious -- have become less effective. Both of these are significant indicators, independent of the bombings themselves.
Though we still need to be extremely cautious and realistic about progress, these are positive signs. We are into the fifth year of the war, and only the fifth week of this operation - so it is still very early days. Tough times and setbacks undoubtedly lie ahead. But the general trajectory of the campaign seems to be changing, in subtle ways that may yet prove decisive.
David Kilcullen is Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor, Multi-National Force -- Iraq. These are his personal views.