Talisman Gate

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fighting Over Spoils, Not Scraps

January 18, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Fighting Over Spoils


January 18, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/26076

There is a widening rift among insurgent groups in Iraq, but this does not mean that the insurgency is about to be defeated, or even abated. On the contrary, judging by a recent spike in jihadist propaganda - noted for its quantity and emerging sophistication - one would conclude that the terrorists seem to think that victory is within their grasp, and they have begun to fight over who claims it, and the promised spoils in tow.

These days, policy makers are trying to concoct designations to identify the various elements of the insurgency: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his ilk are the "terrorists" or jihadists, the ex-Baathists are the "insurgents," and those Sunni Arabs who are opaquely angry over being disenfranchised are the "rejectionists."

The governments of Iraq and the United States hope that the unfolding political process would demobilize the insurgents and rejectionists, and even - in an effort to reclaim the streets of the Sunni triangle - set them off in a confrontation with the jihadists. It is a neat plan, but a totally unrealistic one: It continues to underestimate how entrenched the jihadist phenomenon has become in Iraq and gives too much credence to traditional loyalties like tribal affiliations that have taken a battering in modern times. Sure, as more Sunnis buy into the political process, life will become a little harder for the likes of Zarqawi - but not by that much of a margin that would impede the scope and severity of his terror. Zarqawi has managed to turn his organization into an indigenous Iraqi network with local roots rather than a faction of foreigners at the mercy of a Baathist logistical blanket.

When Zarqawi started out in Iraq, he was a nonentity in the annals of jihad with only a small cadre of seasoned Syrian and Jordanian ex-mujahedin at his side. They called themselves "Monotheism and Jihad," and had been displaced from Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban, somehow drifting into the chaos of Iraq. It was a gamble since no one had entertained the thought that Iraq - whose population is seen as "spiritually challenged" when it comes to radical Islam - would be conducive to waging jihad against the most powerful military in the world that had just deposed a hated tyrant on a terrain that affords nowhere to hide. But Zarqawi, with nothing to lose, took on this suicidal gambit and a marriage of convenience was struck with the remnants of the Baathist ancien regime: They would provide the money and know-how, and Zarqawi would deliver the human torpedoes.

There was a pre-existing Al Qaeda affiliate that had morphed into what we know today as Jaish Ansar Al-Sunnah, or JAS, which looked down on Zarqawi and dismissed him as an impulsive hoodlum who would amount to no more than a flash in the pan. But Zarqawi's stature kept increasing as his sensationalist operations got more of the media exposure, and more funds and recruits flowed into his ranks. By the end of 2004, Zarqawi was ready to make the leap that JAS was unwilling to do: trading in his individual jihadist credentials for the overall Al Qaeda brand, and do so on his own terms without forsaking extreme stances that set him to the far right of even the likes of Osama bin Laden.

With more money and fame, Zarqawi started buying up the logistical networks of look-outs, bomb-makers, team-leaders of the Baathist insurgency and brought them under his ideological wing. Zarqawi did not need the Baathists anymore, for he had eclipsed them. Thus, he had established islands of native sympathizers, bound up by a complex matrix of relationships, among whom he can circulate.

These days, cyberspace abounds with the propaganda of groups such as Al Qaeda and JAS - the two groups that really matter when talking about who is indeed disrupting Iraq's stability. The ex-Baathists and the rejections may sit out the insurgency, or even harass the jihadists here and there, but the terror output from these two aforementioned organizations will continue, and will continue to matter. What is more relevant to is that there seems to be an all-out competition for funds and recruits - something of a jihadist sweepstakes - that seeks to consolidate gains made in Iraq and to branch out into the larger Middle East. In this, Zarqawi worries more about JAS than any projected friction from the Baathists or rejectionists.

Both groups have recently made it clear that they will not entertain a let-up in the mayhem. Al Qaeda acquiesced to an Election Day cease-fire "so as not to harm lay Sunnis who have been led astray," and JAS was sold on the idea that the Sunnis could disrupt the political process from within. But when the results started coming in, showing that the Sunnis did not have the numerical heft to veto or stall the progress of the Iraqi state, Al Qaeda came out with a "we told you so" posture, while JAS repented its gullibility through a "Day of Renunciation" on New Year's Day with "16 car bombs, 10 improvised explosive devices, and several rocket and mortar barrages," according to a released statement.

Interestingly, there is now a scramble for who gets to claim to be at the "center" of the jihadist spectrum. Both Al Qaeda and JAS have put out videos highlighting their efforts to protect civilians and their property (Sunni civilians that is) from injury and harm. JAS has even resorted to building a professional looking television studio where two interlocutors discuss military operations in a talk-show format, clearly trying to take on some mainstream trappings. Al Qaeda is highlighting its "softer" side by releasing a video showing them being gracious hosts to five Sudanese diplomats that they had kidnapped, even though they had threatened to behead them should their government not remove its representation from Baghdad.

A sense of false complacency is setting in Washington as people pat themselves on the back and claim that the political process has divided the insurgency. But the picture is far more nuanced than that, since there is no indication from Al Qaeda or JAS to show that they feel the heat; they are not behaving as if they have been cornered or forced on the run in search shrinking havens. On the contrary, they seem to be marking out areas of influence, and competing for a wider share of inflowing funds and recruits. In their mind's eye, they are winning while America is losing, and thus they can focus on eliminating or absorbing minor groups and marginalizing competitors, and even punishing stragglers.

Nobody in Washington should be resting on their laurels just yet. In fact, there should be feverish activity to turn this simmering competitiveness among the leading jihadi groups into a boil. The atmosphere is all set for "did you hear what he said about your momma?" mischief-making, which may actually compel an oversized ego like Zarwaqi's to lash-out against JAS and others.

But the United States is keener on winning over hearts and minds rather than manipulating them. Does it even have the mechanism by which it can muddy the water through blackops such as inventing shadow jihadist organizations that stage attacks against Americans to garner some attention, and then spend their energies denouncing the likes of Zarqawi and JAS through Internet postings and uploaded videos? Wasn't the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence supposed to do just that? Oh, I forgot, some journalists got all riled up over that whole affair and Donald Rumsfeld cancelled it. Shame; could have been useful these days in driving wedges among glory-drunk jihadists.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington DC. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 18, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >