Interesting week so far. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, “the Sheikh of the Slaughterers,” has been slain. Everybody wants a piece of this. The Jordanians are claiming a role. The Americans of course, Iraq’s security forces. The US ambassador to Iraq hails it as a “good omen,” which sounds rather weak, if the best the US can come up with in Iraq are omens. Perhaps they will say it’s another “turning point” or a “milestone,” because we haven’t had enough of those since the Occupation began. Perhaps we have “turned the corner,” in Iraq, which, after the thousand corners claimed turned by the Americans, makes for an interesting geometrical structure. Perhaps this will “break the back of the insurgency”? No, it is not even a good omen, it is an ominous omen.
Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. This civil war may have begun the day the Americans overthrew the old order in Iraq and established a new one, with Shias on top and Sunnis on the bottom, or it may have begun more specifically in 2005 when Iraq’s police and army finally retaliated against the Sunni population for harboring the resistance, insurgency and the terrorists like Zarqawi who targeted Shia civilians. Sectarian cleansing began to increase and suddenly Sunnis felt targeted and vulnerable for the first time. Sunni militias that targeted the Americans became the Sunni militias that defended Sunni neighborhoods from the incursions of Shia militias and they began to retaliate following Shia attacks. But the Shias of Iraq have the police and army at their disposal, not to mention the American military, which has become merely one more militia among the many in Iraq, at times striking Shia targets but still mostly targeting the Sunni population, as the Haditha affair demonstrates.
So time to dispel some myths. Zarqawi did not really belong to al Qaeda. He would have been more shocked than anybody when Colin Powel spoke before the United Nations in the propaganda build up to the war and mentioned Zarqawi publicly for the first time, accusing him of being the link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi in fact did not get along with Bin Ladin when he met him years earlier. He found Bin Ladin and the Taliban insufficiently extreme and refused to join al Qaeda or ally himself with Bin Ladin, setting up his own base in western Afghanistan instead, from where he fled to the autonomous area of Kurdistan in Iraq, outside of Saddam’s control, following the US attacks on Taliban controlled Afghanistan in late 2001. Zarqawi only went down into Iraq proper when the Americans liberated it for him. He had nothing to do with al Qaeda until December 2004, when he renamed his organization Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, or Al Qaeda in Iraq as it has become known.
Why did he do this? It was a great deal for him and Bin Ladin. Zarqawi needed the prestige associated with the Al Qaeda brand name in global jihadi circles. He could not claim to be fighting a more important battle than merely the struggle for Iraq. He was fighting the Crusaders and Jews everywhere and doing it in the name of Bin Ladin, still the elder statesman of Jihad and the hero of the anti Soviet jihad which Zarqawi all but missed by the time he arrived in Afghanistan. For Bin Ladin and his deputy Zawahiri it was also a great deal. Al Qaeda was defunct. Its leadership hiding in the Pakistani wilderness, completely cut off from the main front in today’s jihad, Iraq. When Zarqawi assumed the al Qaeda brand name he gave a needed fillip to Bin Ladin who could now associate himself with the Iraqi jihad, where the enemy was being successfully killed every day, and where the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world were turned to, far more than Afghanistan.
Zarqawi was not very important in the first place, and hardly represented the majority of the resistance or insurgency. When he arrived in northern Iraq he was a nobody. After the war he descended into Iraq proper and began to organize the disparate foreign fighters who had come to fight with Saddam’s army against the American invasion. Shocked by the disappearance of Saddam’s army and the easy American victory, these arab fighters from Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, were without leadership, and Zarqawi was a charismatic leader, and fearless, according to all accounts. Although he claimed several significant attacks, such as the United Nations bombing and the assassination of Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq leader Muhamad Bakir al Hakim, Zarqawi and his foreign fighters were a numerically insignificant proportion of the anti American fighters.
It took the United States to make Zarqawi who he became. Intent on denying that there was a popular Iraqi resistance to the American project in Iraq, the Americans blamed every attack on Zarqawi and his foreign fighters, and for a while it seemed every car accident in Baghdad was Zarqawi’s fault. The truth was that much of Iraq’s Sunni population, alienated by the Americans who removed them from power and targeted them en masse during raids, supported and participated in the anti American resistance. Even many Shias claimed resistance. Muqtada Sadr, the most powerful and popular single individual leader in Iraq, led two “intifadas” against the Americans in the spring and summer of 2004, and his men still rest on their laurels, claiming they too took part in the Mukawama, or resistance. But by blaming Zarqawi for everything the Americans created the myth of Zarqawi and aspiring Jihadis throughout the Arab world ate it up and flocked to join his ranks or at least send money. Zarqawi was the one defying the Americans, something their own weak leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere, could not do, having sold out long ago. It was then comical when the Americans released the Zarqawi video out-takes and mocked him for fumbling with a machine gun. Having inflated his reputation they were now trying to deflate it. But it was too late. Jihadis were not going to trust the Americans. Zarqawi had proved how good he was at killing Americans and Shias and evading capture. Whether he was proficient in using a particular machine gun was besides the point, he was very good with bombs, with knives, and certainly successful with his strategy. See the excellent blog by “The Angry Arab” for more on this.
The bulk of the resistance and insurgency was Iraqi and they had different goals than Zarqawi. Often Zarqawi’s fighters clashed with indigenous Iraqi fighters, who wanted only to liberate Iraq and regain political power, but who did not care for Zarqawi’s puritan ways or his global jihad. It is likely that they may have provided the tip that cost Zarqawi his life. But in death Zarqawi struck one final blow for his cause. He had come to Iraq to fight the infidels and become a martyr, gaining entry to paradise. And so he did, the infidels finally killed him and his supporters now believe he is in paradise. This only proves that Iraq is the place to go to if you want to gain entry to paradise, kill infidels, and become a martyr. More will flock to replace him and avenge him. Expect to see a new group, naming itself after Zarqawi, claiming responsibility for attacks targeting Shia leaders or Shia shrines in Iraq, but also in Lebanon or Saudi Arabia, where tensions between Sunnis and Shias have been simmering since the war in Iraq.
We in the media are often pilloried for only reporting “the bad news” in Iraq. But there is no good news. Its too dangerous to even tell you how bad things really are, but they are worse than what you see on the media, not better. The insurgency is passe, Iraq is about the civil war, chaos, anarchy, random and deliberate violence everywhere. And it is spreading throughout the region. Instead of stabilizing the Middle East, the US war in Iraq is tearing it apart, destabilizing it, reviving radical Islam and jihadism and giving a bad name to reform and democracy.
For more, see my recent articles in the Washington Post Outlook Section or the Boston Review. For more on the Zarqawi killing see the
Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a free lance writer who has spent two years in post war Iraq and has also worked in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His book on Iraq, “In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq,” was published last month by Free Press. His work is available on www.nirrosen.com.