By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 09/06/06):
The success of any insurgency always depends on the degree of its popular support. In a country occupied by foreign troops and where the government is not perceived as independent, the most powerful source of that support is nationalism. The occupiers are the insurgents’ best recruiting tool.
These basic truths have never been taken on board sufficiently by the Bush administration or the UK government in their dealings with Iraq. Ignoring them was the biggest blunder in the pre-invasion period, when it was falsely assumed most Iraqis would welcome the arrival of western troops. Since the invasion, US commanders and politicians have continued to underrate the extent of nationalist resentment and resistance.
The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-styled leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, offers a new chance to adjust to reality. His killing has been greeted with relief and delight by many Iraqis. Though attracted to Iraq by the magnet of the occupation, he was seen as the architect of a terror campaign that had nothing to do with the real insurgency. It was designed to provoke chaos and civil war. An extreme Sunni fundamentalist who believed Shias were not true Muslims, he and his group had increasingly turned to attacks on Shia targets.
For months there were signs that his vicious carnage was alienating many Iraqi Sunni leaders. As a result, Zarqawi was forced to agree not to disrupt last December’s election for a new Iraqi government since Sunnis wanted to take part.
His ultra-radicalism earned him rebukes from within al-Qaida itself. Ayman al-Zawahiri, its deputy leader, wrote him a letter last summer warning of the risk of losing popular support, questioning the wisdom of attacks on ordinary Shias, and denouncing the videos of hostage-beheadings. Although the letter’s authenticity has not been proved beyond doubt, its message sounded plausible. Zarqawi was reminded that the Taliban failed to broaden its political base and fell largely for that reason. He was also told to remember that resistance in Iraq cannot be led by “non-Iraqis” and that he should therefore defer to local feeling – a reflection of the need to understand national pride that applies more strongly to the Americans and the British.
Zarqawi and other foreign jihadis were always a minority within the resistance. Outsiders have never exceeded 10% of the numbers of fighters and suspected insurgents killed or detained by the occupation and Iraqi forces. Clearly, Zarqawi had Iraqi allies, and had an influence on inciting suicide bombings.
The test of that influence will come over the next few weeks. Will the number of brutal attacks on civilians, and particularly on Shias, go down? The amount of blood spilt in recent sectarian assaults, particularly since the bombing of the shrine at Samarra, is horrendous. Killings of Sunnis by Shia militants, often linked to government ministries, have also become rampant.
A cycle of violence and revenge has been set in motion, and will not easily be reduced. So Zarqawi’s death may have little impact in the short term. It will not affect the nationalist insurgency that targets the Americans and British, and those defined as collaborating with them. When Saddam Hussein’s sons were killed, the US claimed it would reduce the resistance. Similar hopes were expressed when Saddam was captured two and a half years ago. In both cases the predictions were wrong.
The appointment yesterday of new security ministers gives Iraq’s government a better image. They now need to control the killers in their own forces. Zarqawi used murder to incite and exacerbate sectarianism. His death removes the provocateur. It is up to the Iraqi government to roll back the consequences.