An example of why blaming violence in Iraq on Al Qaeda should be received with skepticism.
In March 2007, a pair of truck bombs tore through the Shiite marketplace in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, killing more than 150 people. The blast reduced the ancient city center to rubble, leaving body parts and charred vegetables scattered amid pools of blood. It was among the most lethal attacks to date in the five-year-old Iraq War. Within hours, Iraqi officials in Baghdad had pinned the bombing on al-Qaeda, and news reports from Reuters, the BBC, MSNBC, and others carried those remarks around the world. An Internet posting by the terrorist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) took credit for the destruction. Within a few days, U.S. Army General David Petraeus publicly blamed AQI for the carnage, accusing the group of trying to foment sectarian violence and ignite a civil war. Back in Washington, pundits latched on to the attack with special interest, as President Bush had previously touted a period of calm in Tal Afar as evidence that the military’s retooled counterinsurgency doctrine was working. For days, reporters and bloggers debated whether the attacks signaled a “resurgence” of al-Qaeda in the city.
Yet there’s reason to doubt that AQI had any role in the bombing. In the weeks before the attack, sectarian tensions had been simmering after a local Sunni woman told Al Jazeera television that she had been gang-raped by a group of Shiite Iraqi army soldiers. Multiple insurgent groups called for violence to avenge the woman’s honor. Immediately after the blast, some in uniform expressed doubts about al- Qaeda’s alleged role and suggested that homegrown sectarian strife was more likely at work. “It’s really not al-Qaeda who has infiltrated so much as the fact [of] what happened in 2003,” said Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the Naval War College who served as an Army political adviser to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar until shortly before the bombing. “The formerly dominant Sunni Turkmen majority there,” he told PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer soon after the bombing, “suddenly … felt themselves having been thrown out of power. And this is essentially their revenge.”