Baghdad – Iraq’s reported capture at the weekend of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has turned out to be a much lower-level operative, according to the country’s acting interior minister.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Adnan al-Assadi said the suspect was believed to be a section commander in charge of an area stretching from the northern outskirts of Baghdad to Taji.
“Anyone from al-Qaeda is important … but he is not a very senior al-Qaeda leader,” he said.
Assadi also said that al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq were directing operations in Syria, and that a US refusal to sell his country advanced surveillance equipment was hampering efforts to fight the organisation.
Iraq’s counter-terrorism unit had announced on Sunday that it had arrested the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq in a raid in Baghdad after months spent infiltrating the organisation.
It said it had also seized documents with the names and locations of other operatives.
Assadi said while Iraq and the US had considerably weakened the organisation, it was still believed to maintain up to 2,000 or 3,000 members in Iraq, and its leaders were directing al-Qaeda operations across the border in Syria.
“The Islamic State of Iraq – the link to al-Qaeda – has responsibility for Syria,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They send fighters from Iraq to Syria, the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq controls Syria and they go back and forth between the two countries.”
Assadi said al-Qaeda’s hideouts in western al-Anbar, Ninevah and Salahadin provinces were in areas too large and remote for Iraqi forces to patrol effectively.
US forces when they were here also lacked the numbers to maintain security in those desert areas – traditional strongholds for al-Qaeda that provided a refuge after its fighters were driven out of the cities.
“If you have two million soldiers you couldn’t cover it,” said Assadi. “It needs to be covered with satellite and aerial surveillance which we do not have now.”
He said that while Washington still provides the Interior Ministry with occasional satellite imagery of al-Qaeda suspects and locations, they no longer have access to the real-time surveillance that gave forces on the ground immediate information for targeted attacks.
“We have maybe 25,000 soldiers and police cordoning this area and searching every house, every mountain, every river but … we are facing al-Qaeda in the desert on our own,” he said.
Assadi also said Iraqi counter-terrorism efforts have suffered from the loss of US aerial surveillance in and around the capital, where al-Qaeda is also believed to be regrouping.
“We have tried to persuade US forces to leave their air space surveillance in Baghdad and surrounding areas but they refused,” he said.
“We have tried to acquire this system from them through any means and at any price and still American forces refused…because they say it is advanced technology.”
On Thursday, the US signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq that pledges more co-operation on counter-terrorism, but would not give details on what that help might entail.
Washington pulled out almost all of its assets when it failed to agree with Baghdad on keeping a military presence in Iraq last year. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance remain the biggest gaps.
In the absence of evidence, arrests – and even convictions – often still rely on uncorroborated witness testimony.
In many places, including courts and prisons, computerised records are rare – with files handwritten and kept in piles of binders.
Assadi, whose ministry oversees Iraqi police, said in his view a huge, unprecedented US State Department-run police training programme which was to have been the cornerstone of continued US security efforts here had never been a serious effort.
“We were expecting the US would train police personnel and experts in tracing calls and perpetrators though advanced electronic means which we would provide with our own money but this did not happen,” he said.
“It never reached the goal of bringing police experts up to a high level of information technology and following up crimes electronically.”
He said he had been informed that an expected training programe for the Interior Ministry on computer and internet crimes, forensics, and investigations relying on advanced technology, had recently been cut from the US budget for police assistance.
The US government said several months ago it planned to dramatically scale back plans for the State-Department led police training programme.
In a report to Congress in June, the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction said the programme, which has cost $8bn since 2003, appeared to have been unfeasible from the start, and was never properly co-ordinated with Iraq.
The report also noted that most of the costs of the programme would be spent on providing security for the police trainers.
Assadi told Al Jazeera Iraq had rejected a $1.25bn programme for 2009-2010, after being told by the US how much would be left for actual training.
“The inspector said that for this $1.25bn, the Ministry of Interior can get 17 per cent,” said Assadi.
“Eighty-three percent goes to travel costs, security, hotels and other expenses for advisors, but we get 17 per cent. I said to him ‘you can take the 17 per cent and put it in your budget. We don’t need this’.”
The US embassy in Iraq said it had no new comment on the cost issue.