AC: "al Qaeda's hard line is gaining traction"
ANDERSON COOPER: Tonight in Iraq, a new message from al Qaeda, in English, and growing terror on the ground.
... And that's what they call a technical problem.
We begin the hour with the state of al Qaeda in Iraq. Just a day after U.S. commanders said a draw-down of American forces will not be happening this year or any time soon, you're about to see one of the reasons why. Iraq may have bigger problems now -- a civil war or something close to it. It's a matter of semantics, perhaps, but the al Qaeda problem has not gone away. In fact, in plain English, the problem is growing right before our eyes. Reporting from Baghdad, CNN's Michael Ware.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Until now, most communications from Al Qaeda in Iraq have been carefully crafted videos like this one, showing the shooting down of a U.S. Apache helicopter. What's unprecedented about this video is we hear about from al Qaeda in English.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just to let you know that our lives are nothing beside our religion. We will bomb everything.
WARE: Insurgent groups and the U.S. military now say al Qaeda has become the darkest core of Iraq's insurgency.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just to let you know that we love to die as you love to live.
WARE: An organization so secretive that despite seized documents, intelligence, and interrogations, the U.S. military still struggles to know how it works.
COL. SEAN MACFARLAND, U.S. ARMY: We don't have a 100 percent understanding of that. And the enemy tries very hard to keep us from understanding.
WARE: There have been successes: cells disrupted, leaders captured, and most stunning of all, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, executed in a U.S. airstrike. But reality on the ground suggests the U.S. military is far from crippling the deadly network.
Abu Khaled al-Iraqi is a top commander from the powerful alliance of local Islamic insurgent groups.
In his first television interview, he tells CNN Zarqawi's death brought change, but not what the U.S. had in mind. Instead, younger, even more radical al Qaeda leaders.
ABU KHALED AL-IRAQI (through translator): Al-Zarqawi is one person, and al Qaeda is thousands of people.
WARE: Local Sunni insurgent groups more moderate than al Qaeda, and Iraqi nationalists mostly from Saddam's former military agree. Al Qaeda is becoming stronger. Listen to this nationalist insurgent commander. He says al Qaeda's decentralized structure, seemingly endless money and growing support in and out of Iraq is overpowering local guerrilla groups.
ABU MOHAMMED (through translator): Al Qaeda's leadership is different. But as an idea, it has expanded. Because most other groups, pressured between U.S. forces and al Qaeda have had leaders killed or captured, and al Qaeda took over their fighters.
WARE: That's an assessment shared by many in the U.S. military. American commanders like Shawn McFarland confront the al Qaeda-led insurgency every day.
SHAWN MCFARLAND, AMERICAN COMMANDER: What we're trying to do here is counteract the strong presence of al Qaeda that's intermixed with some lingering Baathist influence.
WARE: Four months ago, Abu Khaled's insurgent group was distancing itself from al Qaeda. Now, he says, there's no difference at all.
ABU KHALED (through translator): Al Qaeda works within the resistance and is part of the resistance.
WARE: The Sunni groups say fear of civil war with Shiites in control of the Iraqi government and unchecked Iranian interference is driving them to al Qaeda.
ABU MOHAMMED (through translator): America came to Iraq saying it would free us from tyranny and dictatorship, but that hasn't happened because the U.S. increased the power of the Shia religious organizations, gave them the government, and we regard this as giving power to Iran.
WARE: If so, it is Zarqawi's most enduring legacy, his plan all along to spark sectarian conflict and draw Sunni insurgents to al Qaeda's cause. The insurgents say al Qaeda's hard line is gaining traction where there was little before.
ABU MOHAMMED (through translator): When the nationalist forces become weak, that leaves al Qaeda as a strong force in the area.
WARE: Yet the U.S. military is still hoping disillusioned moderate Sunnis reject al Qaeda.
MCFARLAND: Al Qaeda is herding them back toward us. So, to an extent the Sunnis may be trapped between the devil and deep blue sea.
WARE: But Sunni insurgents know one day the United States will leave Iraq and they believe al Qaeda will not.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Michael, you know, Bush talked about al Qaeda's plans to infiltrate the government of al-Anbar Province. Is there evidence of that at this point?
WARE (on camera): Absolutely, Anderson. I mean, as we know, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri have said it's in al- Anbar Province that is the toe hold from which we will build the caliphate, the religious state that will spread across the world.
What Marines intelligence discovered in Ramadi, the provincial capital, is that al Qaeda had infiltrated or penetrated, for example, the oil ministry so extensively that it dominated the distribution of oil, coming down from refineries, passing through a government distribution center, down to the gas stations. And were making between $400,000 and $600,000 every month that they are using to fund operations against U.S. forces -- Anderson.
COOPER: How much -- I mean, at this point, I know we don't know and they have been searching and interrogating people, but I mean, how much is al Qaeda in control of this thing, in terms of numbers on the ground? Is this still very much a Sunni-based nationalistic insurgency or is it foreign fighters, is it al Qaeda in Iraq guys?
WARE: Well, we've seen this ebb and flow, the balance between the foreign elements and the extreme Iraqi element that it's created. Remember, there was no al Qaeda here under Saddam. There was some fertile ground, but no one had plowed it. Well, al Qaeda has done that. Now there's hundreds, if not thousands of al Qaeda members from Iraq who were not before the invasion.
But what we see is that al Qaeda has a small foreign core and then it has its Iraqi body around it. What we're now seeing is that group growing more and more and taking over much more of the local fight than we saw before. So, a group that was once only 5 percent of the insurgency is now larger, and its influence way beyond that -- Anderson.
COOPER: Troubling. Michael Ware, thanks.