Global Policy Forum

Things Could Get Even Worse in Iraq


Only the Withdrawal of Coalition Troops Will Mark a Genuine Turning Point

By Neil Clark*

June 12, 2006

First, it was the pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad. Then it was the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Then the capture of Saddam himself. After that, the elections. After that, the formation of a government. And now it's the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. For the sixth time, the supporters of the Iraq war are proclaiming a "turning point" in the conflict. And for the sixth time, we can be fairly sure it won't be.

Make no mistake: al-Zarqawi was a fiend and no one should mourn his demise. But it would be a grave mistake to believe that with the Jordanian terrorist dead, the insurgency will now fade away. After all, individuals such as al-Zarqawi no longer control - if they ever did - the inferno in Iraq. Neither do international terror networks such as al-Qa'ida. In the 1990s, foreign jihadists did play a crucial role in fighting for the radical Islamist cause in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Algeria.

But in Iraq, such is the strength of local opposition to the occupation, foreign insurgents such as al-Zarqawi have been surplus to requirements. Out of all the fighters and suspected insurgents killed or detained by the occupation and Iraqi forces, only 10 per cent have been foreign.

The home-grown nature of the Iraqi rebellion is an unpalatable truth that the coalition's leaders refuse to publicly acknowledge. To do so would mean conceding that a large section of the Iraqi population do not see coalition forces as "liberators" but as a hostile army of occupation. Far better to paint a picture of a conflict prolonged by international terror networks such as al-Qa'ida and devilish frontmen such as al-Zarqawi.

There is a strong case for saying that if al-Zarqawi had not existed the allies would have had to invent him. After the capture of Saddam in December 2003, the bearded, bloodthirsty fanatic fitted the bill of new western bogeyman perfectly: who, when faced with George Bush's declaration "either you are with us or with the terrorists", would elect to be on the side of a man who bombed wedding receptions and who broadcast the beheading of foreign hostages on the internet.

Even before the invasion, the allies were getting their full money's worth from the Jordanian psychopath. As part of the propaganda offensive to link a secular Baathist regime to the decidedly unsecular atrocities of 9-11, a solemn Colin Powell told the UN Security Council in February 2003 that al-Zarqawi, who had met Osama bin Laden in 2002, was operating from inside Iraq.

It was a deception on two grounds. First, al-Zarqawi did not at the time belong to al-Qa'ida. Second, the area of northern Iraq where al-Zarqawi was based was outside the control of both Saddam and Kurdish forces. The subsequent invasion of Iraq and the chaos that ensued enabled al-Zarqawi to move down from his mountain valley and expand his operations: the war on terror thus helping foment the very terrorism it was supposed to be countering.

With al-Zarqawi - who recently released an audio tape urging fellow Sunnis to kill Shias - now out of the way, things could get even worse for the coalition. The ultimate nightmare for Bush and Blair is a united Sunni-Shia anti-occupation front: al-Zarqawi's death doesn't make that likely, only more possible.

Abdul-Satar al-Samarri, a leader of the influential Muslim Clerics Association, a Sunni group critical of al-Zarqawi and his attempt to incite inter-Muslim conflict, has called for "honest and true resistance that is away from chaos, killing innocents and policemen and sabotaging infrastructure". The aim being "to kick the occupation out of the country".

By inflaming Sunni-Shia tensions and eschewing the al-Samarri approach, al-Zarqawi was actually doing the invaders a favour. Prominent neo-conservative Daniel Pipes, who had boldly predicted in 2003 that "the war in Iraq will lead to a reduction in terrorism", argued in February that while a Sunni-Shia civil war would be a humanitarian catastrophe, it would not be a strategic one. "The bombing on February 22 of the Askariya (Shia) shrine in Samarra was a tragedy, but it was not an American or a coalition tragedy. Put differently, when Sunni terrorists target Shiites and vice versa, non-Muslims are less likely to be hurt." Pipe's assessment might seem brutal to some, but it is at least honest.

In reality, the underlying cause of the instability in Iraq is not ancient religious tensions or the presence of foreign terrorists such as al-Zarqawi but the presence of the foreign forces of the coalition.

On the day that al-Zarqawi's death was announced, a string of bombs killed at least 31 people and injured 55 in Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed 13 at a crowded market, while three car bombs, one aimed at a police car, claimed the other victims. Death and destruction have become part of the post-invasion daily routine in Mesopotamia: there were 1400 deaths by violent means recorded in May 2006 by Baghdad's central morgue alone.

A full withdrawal by coalition forces may lead to a temporary escalation of hostilities but still offers the best and only chance of lasting peace for the long-suffering Iraqi people. It would also, at long last, represent a genuine "turning point".

About the Author: Neil Clark is a lecturer in politics and history at Oxford Tutorial College in England.

More Information on Iraq
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More Information on Sectarianism
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