Middle East

Iraq

The Next Lebanon?

Al-Zarqawi
A poster distributed by the U.S. army in Iraq shows Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian said to be leading a terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda (AFP-Getty Images).

Arab writers, though alarmed by the March 2 bombings that killed more than 200 Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and Karbala on the Shiite holiday of Ashura, are also generally suspicious of what they see as a U.S. government and media campaign that depicts the Iraqi situation solely through the lens of possible sectarian conflict. Many Arab writers fear that warnings about an Iraqi civil war along sectarian lines lends further justification for the occupation.

Arab editorial pages have also voiced skepticism that Al-Qaeda is orchestrating the attacks in Iraq. The basis of these claims is a captured letter believed to have been written by a Jordanian agent of Al-Qaeda, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, detailing his overall strategy in Iraq. In his March 3 op-ed for London’s Palestinian expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi, Bashir Musa Nafi‘ underscored that Al-Zarqawi is a convenient suspect because he permits the United States to link Al-Qaeda to Iraq and to exploit the “sectarian strife argument” because Al-Qaeda promotes a radical Sunni ideology. But, Nafi‘ reminded readers, Al-Qaeda, which has proudly claimed responsibility for a variety of controversial bombings throughout the Islamic world, denied any such responsibility for the March 2 attacks.

Rashad Abu Shawar, in his March 6 op-ed for Al-Quds al-Arabi, argued that the accusations made by many members of Iraq’s Governing Authority that Al-Qaeda was to blame should be seen as political spin. In blaming al-Qaeda, Abu Shawar explained, “they hold the occupation innocent of responsibility, since they are not able to blame the very occupation that appointed them ministers and members of the Governing Authority.” Abu Shawar also finds it hard to believe that Al-Zarqawi, a foreigner without intimate knowledge of Iraqi terrain and presumably dependent on only a few small terrorist cells, has eluded capture, whereas Saddam Hussein, a man with vast resources and connections inside Iraq, was so easily located.

While conceding that it was not impossible to imagine that Al-Zarqawi’s famous letter was forged, Khalil Ali Haydar premised his op-ed in the Kuwaiti Al-Watan on the assumption that the letter was authentic. His two-part article, printed on March 16 and 17, dissected the language and rationale of the “Al-Zarqawi letter,” which dehumanized or disparaged most Iraqis: According to the letter, the Kurds have become a “Trojan horse” for U.S. and Zionist plans; Shiites are “aspiring snakes” and “cunning scorpions;” even Sunni Arabs are disdained as having sunk to the level of “scummy gnats,” while most of their sheikhs and religious leaders are attacked as “damn Sufis.” But most of the author’s venom is reserved for the Shiites, who constitute “the blackest danger and the real challenge.” Haydar notes the similarities between the stated plans of the “Al-Zarqawi letter” and the events unfolding in Iraq: “The only solution is to attack the Apostates—the Shiites—whether their religious or military ranks or any others among them…until they become hostile towards Sunnis.” The end result will be an internecine struggle that, according to Al-Zarqawi, will force “the Americans [to] enter into a secondary conflict with the Apostates; that is what we need.”

Haydar surmised that all this indicates that Al-Zarqawi’s thirst for attacking U.S. troops to force their withdrawal from Iraq necessitates that Iraqis in general, Sunnis included, “do not deserve any respect or even preservation of their lives.” With this effective stylistic analysis of the text of the letter, Haydar presented a strong argument that Al-Zarqawi, or other Al-Qaeda agents, indeed remains the most likely suspect for the deadly March 2 attacks on Shiites in Karbala and Baghdad.

Some Arab writers do feel that it is a homegrown Iraqi resistance. Said al-Shihabi surmised in his March 10 op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi that the majority of the groups struggling against the occupation are composed of elements from the former Iraqi government but are labeled as foreign insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda. For his part, Al-Shihabi cast serious doubts on the veracity of the Al-Zarqawi letter, claiming that bombastic Al-Qaeda rhetoric is very easy to mimic. In a March 6 edition of the same newspaper, Abd al-Wahhab al-Afandi exclaimed that the perpetrators of the Ashura bombings were “unfortunately, not Zionists or [US] occupation forces…the majority of them are Iraqis.

Adnan Hussein asserted in his March 3 op-ed for London’s Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat that part of the blame rests with those extreme Shiite parties and personalities who have been “stirring up the dust of sectarianism.” Hussein claimed that the attacks were a reaction from defensive Sunnis in response to Shiite agitation during the weeks prior to the March 2 Ashura celebrations. He wrote that these Shiite groups “raised the unrealistic banners, firm in their futility, wanting to transform the solemn occasion of Ashura into an occasion to flex their muscles, with the goal of facilitating the imposition of sectarian rule in Iraq along the lines of the failed Iranian regime.”

Others have tackled U.S. assumptions that these attacks are indicative of violent sectarian schisms between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites and that these attacks would lead Shiites to retaliate against their Sunni neighbors. In his March 11 op-ed for London’s pan-Arab Al-Hayat, an exasperated Muhammad Sadiq al-Husseini asked: “Why don’t we hear [in the news] about the myriad visits that Sunni religious leaders made to Najaf, Karbala, and the holy sites of Shiites? Why don’t we hear about Shiite leaders who raise their voices in the face of occupation and loudly say, “We are with the people of Fallujah?’ ”

As a matter of fact, Sa‘d bin Tiflah argued in the March 6 Asharq al-Awsat, Iraqi history has been witness to relatively stable relations between the two religious communities, and neither wants to see this record of cooperation ruined. Both Shiites and Sunnis realize the attacks are intended to cause fitna, or civil strife, which Islam specifically encourages believers to prevent. Bin Tiflah declared that “those forces of oppression [perpetrating the attacks]…are unable to remain and thrive in Iraq…except in circumstances of an outbreak of fitna.”

In another op-ed in the same edition of Asharq al-Awsat, Ahmad al-Ruba‘i claimed that the attacks have created another opportunity for civil dialogue between the two groups on the importance of national unity, thus engendering the exact opposite result intended by the bombers. Furthermore, Al-Ruba‘i wrote, both Shiites and Sunnis reject fitna because they do not want to facilitate the terrorists’ strategy of bogging down U.S. forces in deleterious urban warfare. In his March 6 op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi, Abd al-Wahhab al-Afandi also praised the Shiite leaders who actively called for restraint and responsible behavior.

The ultimate reason for Shiite restraint, explained Ala Muhammad al-Muttarid in his March 18 op-ed for Iraq’s Azzaman, is the sage leadership of religious leaders and the nature of Iraqi society. Al-Muttarid pointed out that tribal affiliation is a major part of Iraqi identity, and sectarian diversity exists within the tribes themselves, as some contain both Shiite and Sunni members. According to Al-Muttarid, many families have both Shiite and Sunni members. Al-Muttarid opined that in any outbreak of civil strife, despite all the sectarian media hype to the contrary, Iraqis would be more apt to line up along tribal and familial affiliation than sectarian lines.

The March 3 editorial in Al-Quds al-Arabi posited that it is the nature and the intent of the occupation to stir up sectarian sentiment, along the lines of the classic colonial formula of “divide and conquer.” This view found echoes elsewhere in the Arab press. Abd al-Rahman al-Na‘imi lamented in his March 17 op-ed for the Bahraini Akhbar al-Khaleej that regardless of who perpetrated the Ashura attacks, they facilitate U.S. interests in perpetuating a “repugnant image of our nature which serves as a justification for the continuation of occupying Iraq.” In concert with U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Greater Middle East” plan and “supposed” encouragement of democracy in the region, Al-Na‘imi cautioned that instability only further engenders the argument that the Middle East is in need of an ever-present American “Big Brother.”

Sa‘d al-Hadithi, writing in the March 10 Azzaman, suspected that despite U.S. promises to leave Iraq, U.S. forces will try to remain in Iraq for years to come, under one pretext or another—squelching sectarian sentiment being a likely excuse. Al-Hadithi cautioned that from its semi-permanent Iraqi base, the United States will implement the next phase of its plans for the region.

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