Eye on Iraq: The al-Qaida myth

MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Al-Qaida has been decapitated in Iraq, yet the war there is raging worse than ever. Why?

U.S. military authorities have now revealed that Hamed Jumaa Faris Juri al-Saedi, al-Qaida's number two man in Iraq, was captured in June. He was caught not long after U.S. and allied Iraqi security forces finally hunted down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's veteran director of operations in Iraq and the dark mastermind behind its merciless and unrelenting terror campaign against Iraqi civilians, including women and children, as well as against U.S. and other forces.


The killing of Zarqawi made headline news around the world right after it happened. U.S. security authorities sat on the details of the killing of Saedi for two-and-a-half months after it happened. Meanwhile, as we have regularly noted in our companion "Iraq Benchmarks" column, the level of attrition inflicted upon U.S. forces in Iraq by Sunni insurgents has remained relatively high, and while it has not metastasized to new levels, the insurgents have been able to keep up the rate of casualties they have been inflicting on U.S. forces.

This pessimistic development is all the more sobering because the Sunni insurgent forces are now fighting a war on more fronts than they did over the first two years of the conflict. Since the Feb, 22 bombing of the al-Askariya, or Golden Mosque in Samara, they have succeeded in provoking a massive Shiite militia backlash. According to some U.S. estimates, Shiite militias have been killing up to four times as many Sunni civilians as Sunni forces have been killing Shiite ones.


From an American perspective, the war against al-Qaida in Iraq has therefore entered a phase of confusing paradox. U.S. forces and their allies have successfully decapitated al-Qaida and, indeed, have succeeded in eliminating scores of senior commanders and officials over the past year. The quality of U.S. intelligence on the al-Qaida operational infrastructure in Iraq has vastly improved. Zarqawi's successors have yet to establish anything like the charismatic and fearful presence that he maintained for so long.

Indeed, U.S. special forces in Iraq finally appear to hold a whip hand over al-Qaida in some ways parallel to the advantage that Saudi security forces have established over the terror organization for in the past three years in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Like the Saudis, the U.S. forces in Iraq are in the position of being able to rapidly eliminate new senior al-Qaida operational commanders soon after they appear and well before they have been able to establish a firm political and strategic grip on their own forces.

Yet this highly impressive achievement has resulted in no reduction in the general level of violence in Iraq. On the contrary, it has continued to escalate since the al-Askariya bombing to the point where around 100 Iraqis a day are now being killed around the country, primarily in the two western provinces that are the heartland of the Sunni insurgency and in the capital Baghdad. Since that level of killing has now continued for around three months, a death toll of 36,000 per year is now extremely probable in Iraq, even while 140,000 U.S. troops are already in the country.


Why did the tactical U.S. successes against al-Qaida within Iraq fail to have any positive impact on quelling the insurgency? Part of the answer is that al-Qaida and its allies had already succeeded in pulverizing the credibility of Iraq's three democratically elected governments by the time U.S. forces could make real inroads against them.

Also, U.S. planners failed disastrously to bring in enough American troops right after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 to ensure stability and the rapid restoration of basic government services in Iraq.

The U.S. obsession with ambitious, cumbersome constitutional processes distracted American planners and military from being able to focus on the primary issues of restoring power, running water and having enough reliable U.S. and allied troops to ensure law and order in Iraq's cities and towns. As a result, every one of the three civilian governments Iraq has so far had no grassroots credibility or been able to deliver basic protection or reliable services to a significant element of the population by itself.

Even in supposedly peaceful Shiite majority provinces across southern Iraq, the government forces only operate in alliance with, or at the sufferance of, a patch-quilt of Shiite militias that they do not control.


However, the real reason is that al-Qaida was never the only, or even the main, part of the Sunni resistance against U.S. forces in Iraq. By the time Zarqawi was killed, he was only the first among equals in a shifting coalition of anti-American Sunni militia groups. And when Zarqawi succeeded in provoking an overwhelming Shiite violent reaction after the Al-Askariya bombing, he achieved his ultimate strategic goal of making Iraq ungovernable through the U.S.-guided democratic political process that had been set up.

U.S. grand strategy in Iraq, in its obsession with Zarqawi and al-Qaida, never confronted the messy religious and ethnic political and paramilitary realities of the country. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remained convinced through June that once Zarqawi was hunted down and killed and al-Qaida's operational command structure was smashed, then the Sunni insurgency would evaporate and peaceful, democratic political processes would at last triumph in Iraq.

But it has not happened that way and there is no real sign that it will. The condition we have described in these columns as "Belfast rules" or "Beirut rules" -- the condition of ongoing, many-sided sectarian war between different militias after a central governing authority has collapsed -- continues to be the case in Iraq. Conditions in that unhappy country will only start to improve when U.S. policymakers finally confront this unpleasant fact.


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