7 June 2006
By Gwynne Dyer
There is a lesson for us all in the sudden, violent death of terrorist leader Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq on Tuesday. It is this: Never call a meeting.
Osama bin Laden probably hasn’t called a single meeting since 9/11, so he’s still alive and kicking almost five years later. He sends out inspirational video or audio tapes from time to time, but he’s not actually running anything, because that would require him to be in daily touch with lots of people — and if he were, he would be dead by now. They’d spot him using a satellite phone and drop a missile on him, like the Russians did to the Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, or somebody would just turn him in for the $25 million reward.
Zarqawi HAD to hold meetings, however. He had to organise atrocities, coordinate logistics, talk on mobile phones, and thus expose himself to attack on a daily basis, so eventually he ran out of luck. He will not be missed, especially by the saner parts of the Iraqi resistance movement — but he has probably already done the state of Iraq fatal damage.
Zarawi was a foreigner, and most of his fighters were foreigners too, religious fanatics from all over the Arab world who cared no more about the lives of Iraqis than they did about their own lives. The more doctrinally pure among them believed that there should not even be an Iraqi state; like all Muslim countries, it should be absorbed into a single world-spanning Muslim state run according to strict Islamist principles.
It was the US invasion of Iraq that gave Zarqawi and his friends the chance to move in, but they never dominated the resistance movement. From the start, the great majority of the people fighting the American occupation were native-born Sunni Arabs. Some of them, mostly former Baathists, were nationalists who simply wanted the Americans out. Others were religiously motivated radicals, long repressed under Saddam, who also wanted to impose strict Islamic law on the country. But none of them wanted to abolish the country. Most of them did not even want a civil war.
That was where Zarqawi’s influence was greatest, and worst. His gruesome enthusiasm for slowly beheading defenceless hostages and circulating the videos was bad enough. Indeed, although bin Laden and Zawahiri were eventually persuaded in 2004 to adopt “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” as Zarqawi named his organisation, they never had any control over him, and they worried that his obvious delight in cruelty would alienate people from the cause. But Zarqawi’s strategy of trying to trigger a civil war in Iraq by murdering Shia Arabs in large numbers was as infectious as it was effective.
Logically, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs should not seek a civil war because, as a mere 20 percent minority in the country, they are almost certain to lose it. But there is no other strategy that is likely to restore the Sunnis’ former dominance over Iraq either. When no good strategy is available, people will often opt for bad strategies rather than accept defeat — and Zarqawi offered the Sunnis the strategy of civil war.
Like many religious fanatics, he hated people of his own religion whom he saw as heretics even more than he hated infidels, so he had no compunction about blowing Shia Arabs up in large numbers simply because they were Shia. He saw a Sunni-Shia civil war as the best way of destabilising the government that the US occupation was trying to install in Baghdad, but also as the best way to ensuring the emergence of a permanent base for Islamist radicals in the Sunni Arab parts of the country, which would probably end up beyond Shia control even after a eventual American withdrawal.
It was Zarqawi’s people who carried out all the early atrocities against Shia civilians — the bombing of the Najaf shrine in August 2003 (85 dead), the coordinated attack on Shia mosques during Ashoura ceremony in March 2004 (181 dead), the car bombs in Najaf and Karbala in December 2004 (60 dead) — and they had the desired effect. Death squads from Shia militias began killing Sunnis in retaliation, the mainstream Sunni resistance started to fight back with the same methods, and Iraq was trapped in the same spiral of violence that doomed Lebanon to fifteen years of civil war.
Zarqawi is dead, but he has probably achieved his purpose. Baghdad central mortuary is now receiving close to fifty mutilated bodies each day, almost all of them victims of sectarian killings, and every month the number rises. It’s probable that two or three times as many dead end up in other mortuaries or are simply found and buried by their relatives without any official record. The situation in Iraq will probably get much worse, but it is already past saving.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Logically…war”)