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Iraqi Resistance Gets a Breather

The demise of the Iraqi Al Qaida leader, al-Zarqawi, comes at a time when Iraq's future is mired in uncertainty. But the question is what damage Zarqawi's killing spree has had on the people's psyche. While the Iraqis will be hoping that his death will stem the mindless violence, any breather following his death may be the last hope for the emergence of a more well-thought out resistance to US-backed rule in the country.

Iraqi Resistance Getsa Breather

The demise of the Iraqi Al Qaida leader, al-Zarqawi, comes at a time when Iraq’s future is mired in uncertainty. But the question is what damage Zarqawi’s killing spree has had on the people’s psyche. While the Iraqis will be hoping that his death will stem the mindless violence, any breather following his death may be the last hope for the emergence of a more well-thought out resistance to US-backed rule in the country.


he self-professed Al Qaida leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had acquired over the last three years a reputation for slipping out of tight situations and the US-led forces time and again were frustrated by his elusiveness. So much so, some in the Arab world and a section of Iraqis themselves harboured doubts whether there was such a person at all, or whether al-Zarqawi was a US bugbear – someone convenient to hang excuses on, even as killings continued unabated.

In May, probably reacting to reports that he had been sidelined and that his leadership was under question, vanity got the better of al-Zarqawi. He sent in a video tape, for the first time in three years, exhibiting his persona for the outside world. But the myth around his very existence had become so deep-rooted that a certain sense of scepticism greeted the tape. It has taken his killing to reconfirm al-Zarqawi’s existence in flesh and blood. It is another matter that the tape may well have aided US and Iraqi intelligence to eventually nail him to the isolated safe house near Baquba.

Bloodletting IraqBloodletting IraqBloodletting IraqBloodletting IraqBloodletting Iraq

Al-Zarqawi was real, and ruthless. In the three years since the US invasion of Iraq, he and his group “Al Qaida in Iraq” managed to push all other resistance to the margins and indulge in one of the most violent sequences of bloodletting Iraq has experienced and the Arab world has seen. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the resistance to US-led rule in Iraq was dominated by ex-Baathists, sunnis and nationalists. Their cause was immensely helped by the dismantling of the standing Iraqi military of deposed president Saddam Hussein. Save for exceptions and occasional attacks by al-Zarqawi, the resistance targets were typically UScentric – armoured carriers,trucks, military supply lines, aircraft and the like.

As long as Saddam Hussein was in hiding, the hardcore sections of the Islamists and specifically al-Zarqawi were not able to take over the leading role in the resistance. In the south, a section of the shia led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr initiated its own resistance. And, both the sunni and shia groups had just one common aim: to see the backs of US-led forces in Iraq.

The opposition to US-led rule was so strong that even historical differences between the essentially sunni-Saddam loyalists and the shia were subsumed by the desire to see the invading troops go. While it appeared that the occupying forces were being pushed to the wall, Saddam was captured and the tide gradually turned the

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2006 way of al-Zarqawi’s group which professed a violent-extremist intolerant variety of sunni Islam that, among other things, viewed even the shias as enemies. The shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr could have possibly held al-Zarqawi in check. But al-Sadr was quickly neutralised by powerful sections of his shia community, which had cooperated with the US during the invasion in an act of revenge against earlier discrimination during the sunni-dominated Saddam rule. Thus, the field was without a new leader to take over from where Saddam had left. His trusted aide and former deputy chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, general Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, was also weak and suffering ill-health and could not be effective. Al-Zarqawi and his band of Al Qaida followers filled the vacuum.

Violent ExtremismViolent ExtremismViolent ExtremismViolent ExtremismViolent Extremism

Al-Zarqawi’s fight was not only against the US-led forces. He was also virulently opposed to the shia in Iraq. He did not see them as partners in resistance to US rule and worse, he did not even consider them “Muslims” . This resulted in the shia being targeted, their holy shrines and mosques in Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad coming under regular attack and causing innumerable deaths – in the marketplace, on the streets and elsewhere in towns and cities across the country.

Al-Zarqawi targeted foreigners as well

– kidnapping several of them over the last three years, some of whom were publicly beheaded. Along with foreigners, many Iraqis too were held hostage and they too suffered the same fate.

Though empathy for the Iraqi resistance still remains prevalent across large sections of the populace around the world, the opposition to US-led presence in the country has been blunted by the al-Zarqawi group’s continuous attack on Iraq’s civil population and the ruthless treatment of hostages in their captivity.

Some of these attacks on defenceless people have been particularly gut-wrenching, inexplicable and calculated to provoke a violent reaction from the shia. Fortunately, despite what the outside world perceived, the tight historical filial networks of the shia and sunni and a strong and complex pluralistic mix has held firm against the outbreak of civil strife.

Bands of shia militia in tacit cooperation with the US-backed shia-led Iraqi administration have attempted to wreak vengeance on the sunnis – with killings, disappearances and beheadings, but these have not deteriorated into an open conflict.

The indiscriminate killings by al-Zarqawi have, however, alienated the local Iraqis from the resistance. This has been so obvious that several commentators and analysts have even gone to the extent of wondering whether al-Zarqawi and his group were agents of the US-led forces, or worse, did not exist at all and were a creation of Washington and media sympathetic to the Bush administration.

Al-Zarqawi’s actions merely served to justify the continuing presence of its troops in Iraq. Besides this, the sectarian nature of the attacks has helped consolidate existing shia-sunni divisions and prevented the emergence of a more encompassing resistance to Washington’s rule.

In their rise to notoriety, al-Zarqawi and his group utilised the groundswell of public opinion in the Arab world against the US invasion. So much so, despite the innumerable attacks and deaths of Iraqi civilians, Arabs by and large were hard-pressed to criticise Al Qaida openly. The Jordan bombings last year changed all that, and could have possibly led to a chain of events resulting in the eventual killing of al-Zarqawi.

The triple blasts in the Jordanian capital Amman in November 2005, including one in a wedding party, killed 57 people. AlZarqawi’s group claimed responsibility. For the first time in the Arab world the Al Qaida in Iraq, and even the original Al Qaida of Osama bin Laden, was the target of a public furore that spilt on to the streets of Jordan. Placards and slogan-shouting, against Al Qaida unheard of until then, indicated that al-Zarqawi may have overreached himself.

Whether these blasts helped the US-led forces to breach al-Zarqawi’s inner ring or not, one thing was certain: the explosions were the last straw. Attempting possibly to dilute public anger, his own colleagues expressed discomfiture with the direction the resistance was taking. In early April, Hudayf Azzam, whose father was at one time said to be Osama’s adviser, announced in Jordan the “replacement” of al-Zarqawi as the political head of the resistance group.

There were also reports that Osama himself had expressed unhappiness over the violent tactics adopted by al-Zarqawi. It was no surprise that Azzam in his announcement criticised al-Zarqawi’s adoption of the “Al Qaida” name for his organisation. Al-Zarqawi seemed to have come a full circle, and his exit a logical corollary. rr;


Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2006

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