Talisman Gate

Friday, March 23, 2007

Absolutely Worth It

March 23, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Absolutely Worth It


March 23, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/51068

"Was it worth it?" is a question that I hear at every anniversary of the Iraq war, and it gets more pointed and pained — and asked more accusingly by some — with every passing year and especially this week as we mark the fourth anniversary after a particularly rough year.

And I can never understand the bewildered and disappointed look upon the questioner's face — whether they be well-meaning or sanctimonious — when I answer, matter-of-factly, "Yes, of course."

I am expected to atone for all that's gone wrong, and when I don't, it seems that I am violating some social norm. I am expected to repent the sins of war and recant the folly of wanting to fix things by war, as some of the earlier war-supporters have done.

But I don't feel guilty over wanting Saddam Hussein gone, and I am certainly not guilty of what his loyalists and what the jihadists and death squads have done to Iraq since his ouster.

I don't answer for other Iraqis, or for the Americans who too have sacrificed so much. I answer for myself as a war supporter, a war enabler, and a continuing believer: Yes, it was worth it.

I've spent the better portion of my life working toward Saddam's overthrow. I was fully aware of the very real sacrifices made by those before me who had confronted Saddam and his Baath Party, and the consequences of their actions. The tyrant would not vanish by wishing him away — he had to be fought.

This was no personal vendetta, for although many in my family had confronted this regime, we emerged relatively unscathed. My opposition to the regime was motivated by the patriotism instilled in me by parents who encompassed the major sectarian and ethnic differences of the country: one an Arab Shiite, and another a Sunni Kurd. We were Iraqi citizens who wanted our country back, who wanted hope for the future, and none of that could even be contemplated under a regime like Saddam's that actively set Iraqi against fellow Iraqi, using whatever means possible to rend the country apart, foremost being racial and religious differences.

The day the war started was the happiest day of my life. I was waiting for it in a country neighboring Iraq, but I had turned off all the phones the evening before to catch a night's rest away from the well-wishers and congratulators who might call. I woke up and turned on the television to watch footage of the massive explosions that had smashed one of Saddam's palaces during the night. I gleefully shouted my lonely battle cry.

A few hours later, my fellow comrades-in-arms gathered at one of our safe houses. There was no more need for caution and secrecy; all the various cells were brought together to celebrate. We were a motley group that included, among others, a former high ranking Shiite intelligence officer who had spent most of his life working for Saddam, a Sunni aviation engineer who had set out to write a new democratic constitution for Iraq on his own initiative, a Christian military architect who had designed safe passages for Saddam's palaces, a Kurd who had fought Saddam's armies in Iraq's mountains and in a jihadist lapse, had gone to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Hope for a brighter future, hope for a new Iraq, had made us delirious with joy, and dismissive of our differences and our pasts, at least on that day.

The next few days were spent getting ready to do our parts in the war, and meeting with wider circles. One gentleman would become a minister of defense in the new Iraq, another would become a commander of the Mahdi Army. One tribal sheik would morph from being an avowed enemy of the Saddam regime into one of the "wise elders" of the Sunni insurgency.

Needless to say, our hopes at the war's beginning were not matched by what we have seen over the last four years. So many things have happened that broke my heart, including the violent murder of some of those mentioned above, but my capacity for hope never broke — and it's never been stronger.

With hope comes the expectation of better things: It is one thing to expect the luxury of human dignity in a new Iraq and get justifiably indignant when such dignity is violated by the insurgents or the death squads or even sloppy services, and it is quite another matter to expect no rights or compassion under Saddam's Iraq and become resigned to being dehumanized by a repressive totalitarian machine. This is why so many Iraqis are unhappy today and why I am unhappy today, but it doesn't mean that I have lost hope.

I have had my own share of traumas and hurts over the last four years, as did the vast majority of Iraqis. In fact my family, relatively unscathed under Saddam, has undergone a much harsher experience since the liberation of Baghdad. Not only physically and materially, but the spiritual damage has been extensive: Our cherished ideals of patriotism toward our Iraq were never so challenged by sectarian divides as they are now.

But instead of turning forlorn and dejected, I've grown more combative. I think it is because I have more to lose: Bringing down Saddam gave Iraq and the Iraqi people a fighting chance at a better life, and now, faced with this vicious attack by those who want to take us back to Saddam's dark era and others who want to take us back to a medieval form of Islam, I have more to fight for.

When I first started working for the Iraqi opposition, it really seemed at times, as the Western press derisively labeled it, as a venture that involved "three guys and a fax machine." Confronting Saddam seemed like a fool's errand, a hopeless cause, not least because of the danger posed to oneself and one's family.

A couple of days ago, while strolling around Manhattan, I passed the Sheraton Hotel at Seventh Avenue and 53rd Street where an Iraqi opposition conference was held in the autumn of 1999. I giggled at the memories that the place evoked: Who would have thought then that the men and women gathered there would today be the leaders of Iraq? But that is exactly what happened: There is something incredibly powerful in that realization.

The violence and mayhem enveloping Iraq is not my sin. Blame should be left at the doorstep of those who openly boast in propaganda videos about hurting ordinary people. If I am at fault, it is for hoping for too much, too soon. But even so, I have nothing to apologize for.

The war launched four year ago gave me my country back, and armed me with hope. Maybe my hopes have been scaled back slightly and recalibrated, but they were never repudiated nor will they be. On this anniversary, I choose to remind myself that flawed freedom is far better than slavery in whatever form, and that it is absolutely worth it.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

March 23, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Monday, March 12, 2007

Jihadist Meltdown

March 12, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Jihadist Meltdown


March 12, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/50244

There is always a moment during a raging battle when one side realizes that the field has been won, and the other side collapses in retreat and confusion. The curious thing about the Iraqi insurgency is that this moment has arrived, yet both the victors, in this case the Americans and the Iraqi government, and the losers, Al Qaeda and the other jihadist groups, are reluctant to acknowledge it.

But make no mistake, the battle has been turned and we are witnessing the beginning of a jihadist meltdown.

Six months ago, many of the strategists behind the Sunni insurgency, faced with a more effective counterinsurgency effort, began to wonder just how long they could keep their momentum given their diminishing resources and talent. These strategists realized that their "resistance" would just peter out over time, as classical insurgencies tend to do. Some argued that, given one last push, the Americans would be sufficiently distressed to grab at cease-fire negotiations that would end with a hasty American withdrawal, leaving the insurgents to work things out with a much-weakened Iraqi government on more favorable terms.

Others, like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the organization founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saw that there was no future for their vision of establishing a Taliban-like state should these negotiations with the Americans get underway, which would only serve to strengthen the hand of the rival insurgent factions that counsel this course.

This sense that they were running out of time compelled Al Qaeda to take a bold initiative of declaring the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq four months back, appointing the hitherto unknown Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its head. This was no propaganda stunt for Al Qaeda. This was the real thing: the nucleus state for the caliphate, with al-Baghdadi as the candidate caliph.

But this was a fatal strategic mistake for Al Qaeda, a mistake that threatens to pull down all the other jihadist insurgent groups along with it. Al Qaeda tried to leap over reality, but it was a leap into the abyss of uncertainty. Trying to pick a caliph is fraught with historical and judicial complications since there is no historical precedent — not even from the time of the Prophet Muhammad — that would serve for an uncontroversial transfer of power. It is one of the most delicate ideological matters among jihadists, a matter so sensitive that most of them have decided to leave it aside for the time being lest it result in splintering off dissenters.

But Zarqawi's successors, who inherited the leadership after his death last June and who are, for the most part, rash young ideologues who consider themselves the avant-garde of contemporary radical Islamism, felt that the doddering old guard of Al Qaeda — aged and increasingly inconsequential has-beens such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — would never summon the nerve to force the issue of the caliphate and get it going. So they rushed into action, and it has exploded in their faces, since no other groups seem enthused to join them in this risky venture. This mistake has huge implications for the Iraqi insurgency since Al Qaeda accounts for most of it, and its strategic and ideological failure can quickly be turned into a battlefield rout. At this point, the activities conducted by the various insurgent groups can be broken down as follows:

• The Al Qaeda-led Islamic State of Iraq orchestrates 60% of the actions, including most of the spectacular mass murders of civilians and military engagements with the American military. Most of the rank and file is Iraqi as is al-Baghdadi himself, but foreign nationals are better represented in the leadership.

• Other jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Mujaheddin Army, and the 1920 Revolt Brigades, most of which are Iraqi organizations with longstanding Salafist roots, conduct 30% of the operations.

• Various Iraqi Baathist factions orchestrate 10%.

When the insurgency started in mid-2003, it was largely led, funded, and mobilized by the Baathists. But over time, and through Zarqawi's pioneering work, the jihadists began to take over, and the role of the Baathists, per se, diminished. Zarqawi converted Baathists and Saddam-loyalists into jihadists by fanning the flames of sectarianism. He had to gradually wean them off the secular, and ostensibly nonsectarian, ideology of Baathism to his way of thinking, and to do that, he needed a dark force that could appeal to the Baathist rank and file: hardcore anti-Shiism.

Under Saddam, the Shiites were disenfranchised under a longstanding, subtle apartheid regime, which he inherited and which he on occasion allowed to become blatantly sectarian. Baathism, being a fascist-like nationalist ideology, could set ethnic Arabs against the Persian race of Iranians, but the new Shiites who took power after the fall of the Saddam regime were themselves Arabs, many from Iraqi tribes that encompassed members of both sects. Baathism was found lacking in focusing Sunni wrath over losing power to the Shiites, and this is where Zarqawi entered the picture to provide an unabashed sectarian outlet for their anger and vengeance.

Initially, Zarqawi's strategy worked very well, and it almost brought Iraq to the verge of an all-out civil war that would have pushed the Sunnis to submit to Al Qaeda as their only protectors. But something else happened that rendered his approach as yet another strategic mistake: The Sunnis realized that Al Qaeda wasn't strong enough to beat back a full Shiite assault — the group couldn't even protect Sunni communities from Shiite death squads — and that Al Qaeda's vision for reestablishing the caliphate would mean decades of unending warfare. Most Sunnis thus fell in with the crowd that counseled finding a negotiated settlement with the Americans and the Iraqi government — this time, at whatever cost. After four years of this insurgency, the Sunnis have grown weary and tired, and they want to move on.

But that is something that Al Qaeda would not brook, and it set out to force the other jihadist groups to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and to al-Baghdadi himself, or else. Almost everyone balked at this threat, and sharp words were exchanged among them on the streets of the Sunni triangle and on jihadist Internet discussion forums, and then a bloodbath ensued. Things have deteriorated to the point where these other jihadist groups have begun informing on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leaders and local headquarters to the Iraqi government, so that American and Iraqi forces could raid these locations and arrest those who only recently were fellow insurgents of the guys now snitching.

There is no greater joy for someone who cares about Iraq than to watch Al Qaeda and these other jihadist groups go at each other with the bloodthirsty abandon and frenzy that only crazed zealots can muster. The bloodletting has gone far beyond the point of any possible reconciliation, for Al Qaeda must destroy all the others in order to survive, and ditto for the others as they face down Al Qaeda. It has turned into an all-or-nothing fight among the most dangerous insurgents, and it is heartening to see them engaged and distracted in destroying each other.

Now if only the American press would report on this jihadist meltdown so that policymakers in Washington can rally the martial spirit to bring this battle to a crushing end for the enemy.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

March 12, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >