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Al Qaeda in Iraq

Dr Mustafa Alani
Filed on February 12, 2008

THERE are a few cases in human history when the miscalculations, stubbornness, and overconfidence of leaders, wittingly or unwittingly, have influenced the destiny altered the course of events and, sometimes, given unexpected benefits to some people.

The leadership’s lack of wisdom has appeared, in certain instances, as a blessing from heaven. The proof in support of such a controversial statement can be seen in recent developments in Iraq. Saddam's stubbornness and inflexibility benefited his enemies and opponents. For example, the discredited Iraqi opposition groups in exile were rated as having “below zero” chances of gaining power in Iraq before 2003 and the possibility of their ruling Iraq one day was considered a "joke" and "pipe dream." For better or for worse, Saddam’s opposition is now ruling the country, albeit, in a most chaotic and corrupt way. Iran’s control and influence over the key Arab state of Iraq, which was considered by every ruler who occupied the seat of the power in Teheran — from the Shahs to the Ayatollahs — as an unrealisable dream, now has become undisputed reality. No doubt, thanks for the ongoing tragedy in Iraq should go to the stubbornness and ignorance of two leaders, Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

The fertile land of Iraq recently provided us with a new, yet positive, lesson on the benefits which could come out of a leadership’s "destructive" miscalculation and overconfidence. In July 2005, the second in command of Al Qaeda, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, wrote a long letter from his hideout in Afghanistan/Pakistan to "his brother the great mujahid" Abu Musab Al Zarqawy, the leader of Al Qaeda branch in Iraq. This letter provided rare evidence on the nature of communications between the two leaderships, and gave valuable insights into the relations between the mother organisation and one of its offshoots. The letter was long, but a good part of it was focused on one single issue: the importance and the value of securing popular support for any Jihadi activities.

Indeed, by mid-2005, the top leadership of Al Qaeda realised that relations between the Iraqi branch on the one hand and a number of national Iraqi resistance groups and the Iraqi Arab Sunni community on the other was rapidly deteriorating. In his letter, Al Zawahiri was desperately pleading with the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq not to lose popular support by adopting certain behaviour or imposing certain rules and restrictions which could eventually alienate the Iraqis and isolate the mujahideen.

The letter was a clear warning to Al Qaeda leadership in Iraq "in the form of brotherly advice" not to lose public support and sympathy by antagonising Iraqis, and in particular losing the support of the Arab Sunni community of Iraq. Al Zawahiri wrote to his colleagues in Iraq, "If we are in agreement that the victory of Islam and the establishment of a caliphate in the manner of the Prophet will not be achieved except through jihad against the apostate rulers, then this goal will not be accomplished by the mujahid movement while it is cut off from public support." Going one step further, Al Zawahiri stated that, "in the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows" and concluded by saying that in his "humble opinion" securing "popular support would be a decisive factor between victory and defeat."

Fortunately, neither Al Zarqawy nor his predecessor Abu Ayb Al Masry took their top leader’s advice seriously. During the past two years, Al Qaeda leadership in Iraq has committed a number of 'cardinal sins' which has led to the organisation’s declining influence and its gradual demise. The first is that in the area under Al Qaeda control within the Arab Sunni region the organisation tried, by force and intimidation, to impose a Taleban-like regime, implementing a strict Shariah law according to their interpretation. Naturally the attempt to impose such strict rules was rejected by the great majority of Iraqi people who are used to living in an open and tolerant society.

The popular revolt against Al Qaeda conduct led to the establishment of tribal armed militias in the Arab Sunni areas under the name of Al Sahwa to expel Al Qaeda fighters and effectively liberate the Arab Sunni areas from their influence and control. Besides, since Al Qaeda announced the establishment of the "Consultative Council of the Mujahideen of Iraq" in December 2005 then the declaration of "The Islamic State of Iraq" in October 2006, the organisation has entered a major and open battle against the main Iraqi resistance groups that rejected the organisation’s order to disband and amalgamate their fighters in the newly created Jihadi structure under the control and leadership of Al Qaeda "state".

Further, Al Qaeda issued a warning to all Iraqi resistance groups not to be involved in any political dealing with the US or the Iraqi government. The two largest Iraqi resistance groups, 'The Islamic Army of Iraq' and 'The Twentieth Revolution Brigades,' along with many smaller national Iraqi armed groups, rejected these demands outright and, consequently, entered an open confrontation with Al Qaeda cells. This conflict has claimed the lives of hundreds of fighters on both sides, led to many bloody clashes and a number of high-profile leadership assassinations. Further, and more importantly, the Arab Sunni community and the armed militias attached to it deeply disapproved of Al Qaeda strategies which included attacks on the Shia community and their holy places, and the indiscriminate killing of Iraqi citizens.

Al Qaeda leadership in Iraq has just woken up to the reality and realized the size of the loss their organisation has suffered during the last few months. In an internal memorandum dated January 13, 2008 the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq has urged his followers to "soften their tactics in order to regain popular support" and to "fight the true enemy only" avoiding confrontation with the Sunni Arab community.

The ground reality today in Iraq is that neither the US army nor the Iraqi government is winning the war rather Al Qaeda is losing it. Indeed by losing the battle to win the people’s hearts and minds, the organisation has lost the most vital component for any insurgency. The real value of the Al Zawahiri letter is the prophecy which has come true, that the loss of public support could mean the end of the Al Qaeda organisation in Iraq. Iraqi people may oppose the US occupation forces and even the government which is protected and legitimised by the occupiers. But equally they have to stand up against any group that practices terrorism in the name of resistance or in the name of Jihad.

Dr Mustafa Alani is Director of Security and Terrorism Studies Department at the Gulf Research Center

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