BAGHDAD – The breaking news came around noon, on state-run Al-Iraqiya TV, and it hit the Shi’ite slum, Sadr City, as well as the rest of Baghdad, as a new “shock and awe”: Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, popularly known in Baghdad as Abu al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed in the al-Nabai area of Taji, north Baghdad. That’s what Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abu al-Kareem Khalaf was telling Al-Iraqiya live – to the incredulity of many a viewer.
But the spokesman was also saying something even more striking. Abu al-Masri had not been killed by militias at the ministry (the seventh floor is considered “Iranian territory”; virtually no one is admitted). He had not been killed by death squads. And he had not been killed by US forces. He fell victim to “internal fighting” – which could be a reference to a coalition of Sunni tribes that has been fighting al-Qaeda’s extreme methods, or even to al-Qaeda itself. Khalaf actually said Masri was killed by his own al-Qaeda jihadis in an ambush at the Safi Bridge north of Baghdad, an assertion that should be taken with an extreme pinch of salt.
The reaction in almost-3-million-strong Sadr city – where al-Qaeda in Iraq (or “the Wahhabis”) is viewed as worse than any plague – was predictably ecstatic. There was jubilation at police checkpoints (all of them manned by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army). But then came the “ifs” – Masri’s death had already been officially announced twice in the past few months. The ministry had “definitive intelligence reports” Masri was dead. But it had not seen the corpse yet. The Pentagon could not confirm anything.
Then government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh showed up, once again on Al-Iraqiya, saying, “This does not represent an official government announcement.” The truth would only emerge after a series of DNA tests. If, of course, there was a body. Interior Ministry officials would only say, “Our people have seen the body.”
And finally, inevitably, came the denials. The Islamic State of Iraq hit the Internet with a vengeance, proclaiming to the ummah, “Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Mujahir, God protect him, is alive and he is still fighting the enemy of God.”
So what, in fact, is really happening?
Masri has been the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq – personally approved by Osama bin Laden – since last June, when former ueber-bogeyman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by a US air strike in Diyala. Like Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s No 2, he is a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In November, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, a Salafi-jihadist constellation. Masri was the new state’s “minister of war”. The leader of the Islamic State of Iraq is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been striving to impose the fierce Salafi-jihadist Wahhabi ethos and consolidate hegemonic power among the myriad groups in the Sunni Arab resistance. Most of these groups are patriotic and nationalist, and many are crammed with ex-Ba’athists: they view foreign “Wahhabis” with extreme suspicion.
So a backlash was inevitable. Last autumn, more than 200 powerful Sunni sheikhs in al-Anbar province constituted the Anbar Sovereignty Council – led by powerful Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha – basically to counteract al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sheikh Abu Risha could not be reached on his Thuraya satphone to confirm Masri’s killing.
According to council rules, every family in Anbar province must give at least one son to the struggle. Recently, as Asia Times Online reported, nine key Sunni Arab resistance groups – including Jaysh Ansar al-Sunnah, the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance, and the fierce al-Qaeda in Iraq enemy, the 1920 Revolution Brigades – issued a statement positioning themselves against the US occupation, against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government and against the Islamic State of Iraq and its leader, Baghdadi.
Baghdadi may have recently boasted that Iraq, under US occupation, has been turned into “a university for jihad”. But the fact is the Islamic State of Iraq has been besieged by US and Iraqi forces in Baquba. There is a lot of nuance, though. According to Pentagon spin, what has been happening in Anbar is a battle of US counterinsurgency versus al-Qaeda. Wrong: what’s really happening is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaeda in Iraq against the non-Salafi-jihadist Sunni Arab resistance. The 1920 Revolutionary Brigades and Ansar al-Sunnah have been attacking al-Qaeda in Iraq almost daily in Diyala, Salahuddin and Anbar. The key issue is the split between al-Qaeda and former Ba’athists – a split that has always been fierce.
Whether true or not, the killing of Masri will make absolutely no difference – as did the killing of Zarqawi. The Islamic State of Iraq’s tentacles are so far-reaching they have already deeply infiltrated Baghdad neighborhoods such as Amriya and Dora. One, two, a thousand Masris are waiting in the wings. Al-Qaeda’s strategy won’t change – and that means non-stop bloody bombings to keep inciting Sunnis to attack the majority Shi’ites.
The so-called “sanctions generation” in Iraq – those who grew up under the dreaded United Nations sanctions during the 1990s – will keep churning out legions of ready-to-die martyrs. And after all, hardcore Islamists – local and foreign – and Arab nationalists are still fighting a common enemy: the US occupation.