Al-Qaeda's deadly gamble

Tuesday's attacks show how far al-Qaeda
will go to destabilize Iraq, says terror specialist

The Globe and Mail (Canada) - March 4, 2004 - Page A23


Tuesday's attacks against Shia targets in Baghdad and
Karbala during Ashura, the holiest day in the Shia calendar,
have all the markings of the simultaneous and co-ordinated
attacks now associated with al-Qaeda. At first glance, it
would appear that al-Qaeda is succeeding in its quest to
destabilize Iraq. The attacks, however, may have been a
dangerous gamble for the world's most dangerous terrorist

Tuesday's bloodshed was the first significant attack
against a Shia target in Iraq's south since the August,
2003, car bombing in the holy city of Najaf. That attack
killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than
100 others as they emerged from Friday prayers. In
retrospect, that bombing was likely not intended to
spark internecine conflict. Rather, it was probably
designed specifically to kill Mr. Hakim, whose
co-operation with the United States labelled him a
"collaborator" among those opposed to the U.S.

Tuesday's assault, by contrast, consisted of multiple
suicide bombings designed to kill as many people as
possible. The death toll from the attacks -- yesterday the
Iraqi Governing Council placed its estimate at 271 dead,
although U.S. estimates are lower -- marks the highest
number of casualties in a single day since the start of
the Iraq conflict. The fallout from this wanton bloodshed
-- among Iraqis and Muslims across the Arab world --
is yet to be seen.

In recent history, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have
alienated Middle East Muslims with grisly acts of violence.
The carnage of the Luxor massacre of tourists in 1997, for
example, pushed al-Qaeda affiliates to the fringes of
Egyptian society.

Al-Qaeda cannot afford for this to happen in Iraq. Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi, the man U.S. officials believe is
co-ordinating much of Iraq's terrorist activity, recently
admitted that attacking innocent Muslims could lead to a
decline in tacit support for al-Qaeda, which is essential for
the network's continued survival in the region. In a memo
intercepted by U.S. intelligence last month, Mr. Zarqawi
states that, "if we fight [the Shiites], that will be difficult
because there will be a schism between us and the people
of the region. How can we kill their cousins and sons and
under what pretext?"

Even with the knowledge that this strategy could backfire,
and in the absence of another viable strategy, Mr. Zarqawi
and his associates appear to have settled on the Shiites as
"the key to change. Targeting and striking their religious,
political and military symbols will make them show their
rage against the Sunnis and bear their inner vengeance."

Mr. Zarqawi's memo further details a plan to drag Iraq
"into a sectarian war . . . because it is the only way to
prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels [the
United States] and us." Toward the end of his letter, the
writer states flatly, "We have to get to the zero-hour in
order to openly begin controlling the land by night and
after that by day, god willing. The zero-hour needs to be
at least four months before the new government gets in
place." Approximately four months from now, of course,
will mark the June 30 handover of sovereignty to the
Iraqi people.

But even if Mr. Zarqawi's strategy is on schedule, it could
backfire in other ways. While the attacks may have further
soured Iraq's Shia population toward the Sunnis (playing
upon a long-standing grudge), it is doubtful that even a
significant minority of Shiites believes that violence against
them stems from a monolithic Sunni offensive. Most Shia
leaders, both religious and secular, understand that these
attacks are largely perpetrated by outsiders wishing to
foment unrest in a country that a Shia figure will likely
soon lead.

The attackers also sought to drive a wedge between the
U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Shia
community, which responded by charging that CPA security
is increasingly feckless and insufficient. Indeed, Shiites
responded angrily to the attacks by chanting anti-American
slogans and even throwing rocks at U.S. servicemen.
However, Shia leaders recognize that the CPA will
ultimately provide them the infrastructure for their new
government. In short, Tuesday's attacks certainly reveal
raw nerves, but are unlikely to have started a civil war.

In the end, the attacks certainly appear to adhere to the
Zarqawi plan. But it is far from certain whether that
strategy has the potential to succeed. In the highly unlikely
event that Shia anger gives way to retribution against the
Sunni population, the Shiites of Iraq will have played into
the hands of Mr. Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda network. A
more likely scenario is that Shia anger will give way to
increased determination and tenacity, prompting al-Qaeda
to push the envelope of violence and try again.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. He recently took part in a
10-day fact-finding mission to Iraq.

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