Monday, June 28, 2004

The Taliban of the Euphrates

(Note: slightly revised and edited, 6-29-04: DD)

(Links checked and updated: 9-26-04: DD)

There is a fascinating article in the new issue of Time Magazine, on the transformation of the Sunni Insurgency in Iraq (PDF link):

Time reported last fall that the insurgency was being led by members of the former Baathist regime, who were using guerrilla tactics in an effort to drive out foreign occupiers and reclaim power. But a Time investigation of the insurgency today—based on meetings with insurgents, tribal leaders, religious clerics and U.S. intelligence officials—reveals that the militants are turning the resistance into an international jihadist movement. Foreign fighters, once estranged from homegrown guerrilla groups, are now integrated as cells or complete units with Iraqis. Many of Saddam's former secret police and Republican Guard officers, who two years ago were drinking and whoring, no longer dare even smoke cigarettes. They are fighting for Allah, they say, and true jihadis reject such earthly indulgences.

This report, which I believe to be true, raises several important questions: How can it be that the secular Baathists have come to embrace Wahhabism? By invading Iraq, haven't we simply given the jihadists a new field in which to fight us? And would it not have been better to have left Saddam's regime in place as a buffer against the Islamists?

It's true that the insurgency seems to have primarily started out as a Baathist operation. As the New York Times reported on April 29, 2004:

A Pentagon intelligence report has concluded that many bombings against Americans and their allies in Iraq, and the more sophisticated of the guerrilla attacks in Falluja, are organized and often carried out by members of Saddam Hussein's secret service, who planned for the insurgency even before the fall of Baghdad.

The report states that Iraqi officers of the "Special Operations and Antiterrorism Branch," known within Mr. Hussein's government as M-14, are responsible for planning roadway improvised explosive devices and some of the larger car bombs that have killed Iraqis, Americans and other foreigners. The attacks have sown chaos and fear across Iraq.

However, there has always been a strong Islamist element to the "resistance", especially in the Fallujah area, as the AP reported in November:

But residents of Fallujah say their fight against the Americans is motivated by something far deeper.

Those claiming to be fighting the Americans call themselves mujahedeen, or holy Muslim warriors, when signing flyers distributed in the city. Residents routinely refer to the Americans as "crusaders" or "kafara," Arabic for nonbelievers, and Friday prayer sermons are filled with fervent anti-U.S. rhetoric.

In an August 2003 analysis of the insurgency, Dr. Ahmed S. Hashim of the US Naval War College noted the following:

The insurgency in the center might be benefiting from a potential fusion between nationalist and Islamist sentiments among Sunnis, who should not be discounted given the noticeable rise of Islamist sentiments among the Sunni Arab population. There has been a steady, if not surprising, rise of political Islam among the Sunni Arabs. American policy has been so consumed with post-war, superficial understanding of the Shi‘is of Iraq that Sunni-derived political activism did not even appear on the radar screen. However, both mainstream and extremist Islamist movements may be emerging in the country.

More recently, in April 2004, Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges cited this study of Iraqi insurgents:

In the first field study conducted in the Sunni Triangle and based on a large random sample of insurgents killed, Suleiman Jumeili, who teaches at the Center for International Relations at Baghdad University and lives in Fallujah, discovered that 80 percent of all those killed were Iraqi Islamist activists. His interviews with their friends and relatives showed that these young men were inspired by the example of "sacrifice and martyrdom" that is the hallmark of the Palestinian Hamas organization and Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

According to Mr. Jumeili, only 13 percent of the dead insurgents were motivated by nationalist sentiments and only 2 percent were die-hard Baathists; foreign Islamists represented 5 percent. Of those 8,500 insurgents imprisoned by U.S. troops, 70 percent are also indigenous Islamists. (When pressed, U.S. commanders conceded that only 150 - less than 2 percent - are foreigners.)

As noted in the May 31st New York Times, the same Sunni clerics who preached jihad under Saddam have emerged as the political and ideological focal point of the insurgency. Karl Zinsmeister, in his excellent article "The Guerilla War" from the April/May 2004 American Enterprise, also remarked on the role of Wahhabi clerics in fostering violence and anti-Americanism in Iraq.

Finally, both the Washington Post and the Washington Times have published articles describing life in Fallujah under the control of the "resistance". Both pieces make clear that the insurgents are bent on establishing a Wahhabist reign of terror in the city. To quote the Times article:

Residents of Fallujah say foreign insurgents have banned drinking and music, imposed their own courts to enforce strict Islamic law and killed more than a dozen people suspected of collaborating with U.S. forces.

A number of reports point out the vital role played by foreign jihadists in the insurgency. On June 23rd, UPI noted that "(i)ncreasing numbers of foreign Islamic fighters entering Iraq have taken almost complete control of one Iraqi city". On the same day, the Washington Times reported on the large role played by Saudi jihadists in Fallujah, and their ties to terrorists within Saudi Arabia.

Thus it is clear that Time is correct: We are not fighting a secular nationalist movement, we are at war with the Taliban of the Euphrates. The goal of the insurgency is not just to drive out the Americans and other "infidels", it is to impose a Wahhabist totalitarian regime that will serve as a base for the broader Islamist terror movement. How has this come about?

One reason is that, as noted in the Time article, the Baathist part of the insurgency has been dramatically weakened. As coaltion forces stepped up their counterinsurgency efforts, and especially with the capture of Saddam, the Baathists had been seriously damaged by February of 2004. In a sense, this opened the way for the jihadists to take over. The main factor though, as I have written about at length, is that the Baathist regime and Baath Party were far from the bastions of secularism that they are commonly portrayed as. As Dr. Hashim has written:

Saddam's regime itself began to promote the re-islamization of Iraqi society over the past ten years to buttress its legitimacy. This was symbolized by a number of religious policies undertaken with the official sanction of the regime over the course of the past four years. In 1999, the regime launched al hamla al-imaniyah or Enhancement of Islamic Faith campaign that saw the restriction of drinking and gambling establishments, the narrowing of secular practices, the promotion of religious education, and the propagation of religious programming in the media. The regime even allowed Sunni clerics to politicize their sermons -- so long as they focused their ire on the forces that kept Iraq under debilitating sanctions.

Among the Baathist leadership, the figure most prominently asssociated with this Islamization campaign was Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. As Agence France Presse reported on October 30, 2003:

Former Iraqi number two Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, accused by Washington of masterminding an unholy alliance between Saddam Hussein loyalists and Islamic militants, was the prime mover behind the ousted regime's adoption of Islamist rhetoric through the 1990s.

A religious conservative regularly filmed worshipping at Baghdad's main mosques during his years in power, Ibrahim oversaw the Baath party's abandonment of its secular principles in the years after the 1991 Gulf war in favour of the language of anti-US fundamentalism.

Special prayer rooms were kept for him at two of the capital's largest Sunni mosques -- the Abdel Kader Gilani and Abu Hanifa -- and Ibrahim oversaw large state subsidies for Islamic causes.

Public funds were poured into a new Saddam University for Islamic Studies, and religious schools across the Sunni belt of western and north-central Iraq.

It is that region that now lies at the centre of the deadly unrest dogging the US-led occupation which coalition commanders suspect him of orchestrating though an alliance with Islamic militants from abroad.

Today, al-Douri remains the highest-ranking Baathist fugitive, and as noted above, is believed to be very involved in the insurgency. In fact, on June 24th, Fox News reported that "al Douri — whom they describe as an avowed and "fanatic" Islamist whose two sons have sworn 'fealty' to Usama bin Laden — is in league with Zarqawi and Al Qaeda elements. Fallujah is the center of their universe, officials said."

This report is supported by an item that appeared recently on an Islamist Web site, stating that al-Douri and his sons had actually sworn allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the jihadist terror movement in Iraq.

The Baathists' cooperation with Zarqawi predates the American invasion. As ABC News reported on May 25th concering Zarqawi:

During the summer of 2002, he underwent nasal surgery at a Baghdad hospital, officials say. They mistakenly originally thought, however, that Zarqawi had his leg amputated due to an injury.

In late 2002, officials say, Zarqawi began establishing sleeper cells in Baghdad and acquiring weapons from Iraqi intelligence officials.

The Saddam regime's ties to foreign Islamists go well beyond Zarqawi. As Stephen Hayes has noted in his superb book The Connection, the Baathists not only sponsored the terror group Ansar al-Islam, located in northern Iraq, they had imported over 2,000 foreign jihadists into the country by the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Thus, far from being a buffer against Islamism, Saddam's regime was a patron of it, both within Iraq and abroad. The Wahhabi virus had taken root in Iraq long before the American invasion. The Baathists not only allowed this to happen, they actively aided and promoted the process. Many of the Sunni clerics involved in the insurgency were hired by Saddam, and currently preach jihad in mosques built by the Baathist regime. For more than a decade, the regime itself employed the discourse of jihad, and even implemented elements of Islamic law. One of the Baath Party's top leaders is a "fanatical Islamist", and the regime had already established a relationship before the invasion with the terrorist who would emerge as the leader of the jihadists in Post-Saddam Iraq. While it is true that many jihadists have flocked to Iraq since the American campaign began, thousands of them were already there.

Under these circumstances, it can hardly be surprising that many of the remaining Baathists have gone the extra mile and become Wahhabists. Saddam and his sons may have lived lavish, secular lives, but their regime was an ally and incubator of radical Islamism. The insurgency that was the final gasp of their regime had a strong Islamist component from the beginning. That the Wahhabists should now be the dominant force in the effort to destroy the new Iraq is in many ways almost inevitable. The United States did not bring the Islamists to Iraq; they were already there.


Blogger opine6 said...

Nah! Say it ain't so. The SSCI Phase II report said they asked Saddam and he said he would never associate with Islamists. So there! (Idiots)

8:14 PM  

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