Fighting Words

It’s Curtains for al-Qaida

What happens when Iraqi “insurgents” take on Zarqawi’s thugs?

The best news from Iraq this year would certainly be the long New York Times report of Jan. 12 on the murderous strife between local “insurgents” and al-Qaida infiltrators. This was also among the best news from last year. For months, coalition soldiers in Iraq had been telling anyone who would care to listen that they had noticed a new phenomenon: heavy fire that they didn’t have to duck. On analysis, this turned out to be shooting or shelling apparently “incoming” from one “insurgent position” but actually directed at another one.

That would be bad enough news for the video-butchers and the bombers of mosques, but there was worse to come. On Aug. 14 last year, the Washington Post published the following lead paragraph on its front page:

Rising up against insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Ramadi fought with grenade launchers and automatic weapons Saturday to defend their Shiite neighbors against a bid to drive them from the western city. … Dozens of Sunni members of the Dulaimi tribe established cordons around Shiite homes, and Sunni men battled followers of Zarqawi, a Jordanian, for an hour Saturday morning. The clashes killed five of Zarqawi’s guerrillas and two tribal fighters, residents and hospital workers said. Zarqawi loyalists pulled out of two contested neighborhoods in pickup trucks stripped of license plates, witnesses said.

The use of “rising up” and “insurgent” in that first phrase is perhaps unintentionally amusing. To be an insurgent is to rise up by definition; I’ve never read of it being done against an insurgent before, but then I did not pick this stupid term for the Iraqi thugs and fundamentalists in the first place. (Incidentally, on Jan. 5, the Times ran a story under the headline, “Rebel Attacks in Iraq Kill 50, 30 at a Funeral.” The first paragraph of Richard A. Oppel Jr.’s article then began with the words “Insurgents unleashed car bombs,” and the second paragraph said, “In the most lethal attack, terrorists hit …” My italics.)

Back to the Post story from Ramadi: Just for once, those of us who have known so many democratic and decent Iraqis got to see our friends quoted on the front page. “We have had enough of this nonsense,” said Sheik Ahmad Khanjar, the leader of the Albu Ali clan. “We don’t accept that a non-Iraqi should try to enforce his control over Iraqis, regardless of their sect—whether Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs or Kurds.” Ali Hussein Lifta, a local Shiite repairman, responded handsomely. “So many ties of friendship, marriage and compassion” connect people, he said. “We have become in fact part of the population here.”

Of course, most reporters then returned to their insulting (and insultingly easy) task of demarcating and segregating all Iraqi opinion as if it had to fall into one of three groups. In Washington, in public, but unquoted, Ahmad Chalabi said last fall that it would be the Sunnis who would get rid of Zarqawi. Now we read (in the Jan. 12 New York Times) of members of the Sunni “Islamic Army” directly confronting al-Qaida’s gangsters on the streets of Taji, a town to the north of Baghdad, with appreciable casualties on both sides. And within a few weeks, when the Dec. 15 elections occurred, armed supporters of the local insurgent militias were guarding polling places (in Ramadi, among other previously hot locations) and warning al-Qaida to stay away. Interviewed for the Times piece was Abu Marwa, a militia activist from a town farther south, who described setting a trap for two Syrian al-Qaida members—and killing both of them—after their group had tortured and killed one of his Shiite relatives. (“His legs bore drill holes revealing bone. His jaw had slid off to one side of his head, and his nose was broken. Burns marked his body.”)

The significance of this, and of numerous other similar accounts, is three-fold. First, it means that the regular media caricature of Iraqi society is not even a parody. It is very common indeed to find mixed and intermarried families, and these loyalties and allegiances outweigh anything that can be mustered by a Jordanian jailbird who has bet everything on trying to ignite a sectarian war. Second, it means in the not very long run that the so-called insurgency can be politically isolated and militarily defeated. It already operates within a minority of a minority and is largely directed by unpopular outsiders. Politically, it is the Khmer Rouge plus the Mafia—not the Viet Cong. And unlike the Khmer Rouge, it has no chance at all of taking the major cities. Nor, apart from the relatively weak Syrian regime, does it have a hinterland or a friendly neutral territory to use for resupply. And its zealots are now being killed by nationalist and secular, as well as clerical, guerrillas. (In Kurdistan, the Zarqawi riffraff don’t even try; there is a real people’s army there, and it has a short way with fascists. It also fights on the coalition side.) In counterinsurgency terms, this is curtains for al-Qaida.

Which is my third point. If all goes even reasonably well, and if a combination of elections and prosperity is enough to draw more mainstream Sunnis into politics and away from Baathist nostalgia, it will have been proved that Bin-Ladenism can be taken on—and openly defeated—in a major Middle Eastern country. And not just defeated but discredited. Humiliated. Is there anyone who does not think that this is a historic prize worth having? Worth fighting for, in fact?

I leave that thought with all those who have been advocating withdrawal, or taking a fatalistic attitude to an overrated “insurgency,” or who hold the absurd belief that al-Qaida would have left Iraq alone if only we had done the same. If their advice had been followed, and the coalition had pulled out in 2004, the Zarqawi forces would have tried to take the credit, and their boast might even have been believed. This would have been a calamity of a global and epochal order. Now, however difficult and messy the rest of the transition, that at least will never be the outcome.