Some may call it divine providence, some may call it Allah’s bidding; in the end it was up to real Iraq to intervene and shatter the “surge is a success” story sold to US and world public opinion by President George W Bush and his top man in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
Only hours before Bush recommended to the nation and the world what he had told Petraeus to recommend to Congress – in essence his roadmap toward counterinsurgency and endless military occupation of Iraq – a key player in the “success” story was killed, significantly right at the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha – along with his two bodyguards – was killed by a roadside bomb planted near his home in Ramadi, the capital of an Anbar province Petraeus had sworn was “pacified”.
Abu Risha, 37, was the leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, renamed Anbar Awakening – an alliance of about 200 Sunni sheikhs drawn mostly from the Dulaimi tribe and dozens of sub-clans who were fighting against al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers.
In his speech, Bush outlined the plan to leave more than 130,000 troops in the battle zone in Iraq next year, unless Petraeus and Bush decide further withdrawals are possible before that.
With regard to Abu Risha’s killing, as far as the White House is concerned it was the work of al-Qaeda (12 mentions of “al-Qaeda” in Bush’s speech). Were this to be the case, the “don’t mess with us” al-Qaeda message couldn’t be more devastating. Consider the chain of events of the past few days.
- In a carefully stage-managed piece of theater, Bush visits al-Asad military air base in Anbar (not real Iraq) to stress his “surge” is working. He personally meets Abu Risha.
- Osama bin Laden, looking like a clone of himself with a stick-on beard, releases his first video in almost three years, proving he’s alive and kicking. The video may or may be not be a fake.
- Petraeus and US Ambassador in Iraq Ryan Crocker start their presentation in front of Congress, assuring the US and the world the “surge” is a “success”.
- Bin Laden releases his second tape in four days, praising one of the September 11, 2001, “martyrs”. His image is on freeze-frame; his lips do not move.
- Bush announces he will recommend to the nation what he told Petraeus to recommend to Congress: not a drawdown, but the actual extension of the “surge” until next summer.
- Abu Risha, the man Petraeus relied on for the “success” of the “surge”, is killed in Anbar. No wonder Petraeus defined it as “a tragic loss”.
The hit on Bush’s sheikh happened just 10 days after they met. Al-Qaeda had plenty of motives to order the hit. But so did other key players.
No Iraqi guerrilla or jihadist group claimed responsibility. Abu Risha was the most visible of the 200 or so sheikhs in Anbar Awakening. They were mostly from the Dulaimi tribe. Al-Qaeda has a close bond with the Mashadani tribe. This could well have been an inter-tribal payback. Sheikh Jubeir Rashid, also part of the council, cryptically said that “such an attack was expected”, but they “are determined to strike back”.
Abu Risha may have also been killed by one of the top Sunni Iraqi-nationalist guerrilla groups for which throwing the occupation out remains the top priority – way beyond fighting the Shi’ite-dominated government in the Green Zone or Shi’ite militias. Al-Qaeda may boast a maximum of 800 or so jihadis in Iraq. The Sunni resistance has more than 100,000 fighters. The White House hurricane of spinning has simply erased the anti-occupation Sunni resistance masses from the ground.
Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab media and Sunni politics at George Washington University in Washington, called remarks by Petraeus on Abu Risha’s importance “a leap to judgment emblematic of all which is wrong with America’s current views of the Sunnis of Iraq”, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reported.
“In reality, there are a plethora of likely suspects, reflecting the reality of an intensely factionalized and divided community which little resembles the picture offered by the administration’s defenders,” Lynch said.
“Leaders of other tribes deeply resented Abu Risha’s prominence. Leaders of the major insurgency factions had for weeks been warning against allowing people such as Abu Risha to illegitimately reap the fruits of their jihad against the occupation,” Lynch said.
Petraeus’ chaos strategy
Anbar is not pacified, contrary to official line, and Petraeus’s tactics once again are deceptive. When in late 2005 he was writing the new Pentagon counterinsurgency manual, he was heavy on “paramilitary units” and “specialized paramilitary strike forces”. These are actually the new Petraeus-supported and armed actors in Anbar: hardcore Sunni militias.
Some of their foot soldiers – receiving a handsome US$900 monthly salary in a land of 70% unemployment – are formerly unemployed “irregulars”; some are former Sunni guerrillas (the White House makes it sound as if they are all friendly now); and some were until recently working closely with al-Qaeda.
Call it Afghanistan remix. Petraeus was a godsend; local Sunni tribal sheikhs could hardly believe their luck. They had found an eager counterinsurgency messiah with large pockets. Now they can’t get enough of the United States’ cash, weapons, spanking-new uniforms, body armor, helmets, pickup trucks, high-tech information.
They can patiently build their own Sunni militias and/or death squads with no hassle. They can take their time to settle ancient, ever-evolving tribal scores. And sooner rather than later, they can turn on the occupiers themselves. All this financed with US taxpayers’ money.
Petraeus’s counterinsurgency game – arming Sunnis and Shi’ites alike – is the ideal recipe for non-stop sectarian hatred, the perfect justification for an indefinite US presence in Iraq.
Petraeus did not even bother to seek “permission” from the puppet Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad to arm Sunni militias who will try to depose this same government. There’s also the extra bonus of the militias doing part of the dirty work for the Pentagon – going with a vengeance after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Furthermore, it all fits the anti-Iran Pentagon hysteria – the creation of a Sunni counter-power to the Shi’ite Iran-trained Badr Organization.
So the result is of this grand chaos strategy: Iraqis are plunged into horrific sectarian killings on behalf of clashing foreign powers, the US and Iran.
Don’t stop until you get enough
Al-Qaeda for its part, with or without a fake, recycled video-only bin Laden, will keep enjoying the fruits of its brand recognition.
Much more than the Middle East, al-Qaeda’s special target audience is western Europe, where a legion of “white Moors” – second-generation, radicalized, born-again Muslims – eagerly accepts its new politico-religious anti-imperial message. The best antidote to this expansion would be the dawn of real representative governments in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Persian Gulf petro-monarchies. It won’t happen – at least not in the near future.
A new report released this week by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), one of the world’s top think-tanks, is unmistakable. As the IISS is very close to British intelligence, its conclusions represent a faithful portrait of how Western intelligence evaluates the al-Qaeda nebula. For the IISS, al-Qaeda – the network – is on a roll, is well established in northwestern Pakistan, is already able to pull off a new, improved September 11, and its ideological appeal “will require decades to eradicate”.
The IISS also notes how myriad “regional jihadi groups” – especially in the Maghreb (North Africa) and Iraq – have pledged a formal allegiance to al-Qaeda, but also support its global agenda.
This may be the case with al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. Localized, regional or global, al-Qaeda the burning idea will keep surging on relentlessly – killing one US collaborator, Bush ally or – why not? – opportunistic sheikh at a time.