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Zarqawi’s Pledge to Disrupt Iraq’s Election

January 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Six days before Iraq’s national elections another suicide car bombing in Baghdad, this one in front of the offices of Prime Minister Allawi; claiming responsibility was the militant group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, just as the Jordanian-born terrorist has assumed responsibility for some of the most grisly beheadings and suicide attacks in Iraq over the past two years against Americans, Iraqi officials and civilians.

After Zarqawi became a major figure in the guerrilla fight against U.S. forces, he was designated as the Iraqi standard bearer for al-Qaida in a recent broadcast by Osama bin Laden. A few hours after today’s bombing, the Iraqi government announced it had captured a top aide of Zarqawi’s, a bomb maker named Sami Mohammed Al Japi. also known as Abu Omar al-Kurdi.

An Iraqi government spokesman said al-Kurdi, seized in a raid nine days ago and has confessed to making 32 car bombs used for attacks in Baghdad since March 2003. Including the bombing of the U. N. headquarters in August of 2003, which killed the U.N.’s top official, Sergio Vieira De Mello, and 21 others. And a blast in Najaf the same month which killed 80 including a top Shiite cleric. Iraqi officials billed al-Kurdi’s capture as a coup ahead of Sunday’s elections saying al-Kurdi had recently received orders from Zarqawi himself to launch a campaign of attacks on election campaign polling centers before and during this Sunday’s vote.

In an audio recording posted on the Internet yesterday, Zarqawi vowed all out war against the coming elections. “We’ve declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology and anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it, and those candidates running in elections are demi-idols, and those who vote for them are infidels.” Zarqawi a Sunni Arab, also said the Americans have engineered the election to install the country’s majority Shiites in power, an outcome Zarqawi is promising to prevent.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, his role in the Iraq insurgency, and his relationship with al-Qaida, we turn to Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and author of “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror.” And Vali Nasr, a professor of national security studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and author of “The Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power.”

And, Professor Nasr, we got in this same weekend more attacks, a chilling message said to be from Zarqawi himself, and a major arrest of one of his lieutenants. Does this force still represent a significant threat to the elections this weekend?

VALI NASR: Yes, it still does. First of all a lot of the rhetoric that Zarqawi has put out, particularly the anti-Shiite rhetoric, is still out there and also the arrest does not preclude if you would use of more violence and we don’t know what other events have been planned in terms of bombing and disruption of the elections.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree, Michael Scheuer, this is a major force still?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Oh, I think so. I think he is a major player in Iraq, and certainly now has the imprimatur of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. But beyond Mr. Zarqawi, there are other groups, the Ansar al-Suna, the other groups that are fighting against the occupation of Iraq by the United States. And the arrest of one or another individual will certainly hurt that particular organization. But in the long run it’s just one more to add to our body count.

RAY SUAREZ: So rolling up the Zarqawi group wouldn’t make that much of an impact on the insurgents?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, you know, we continue to think that these people are small groups of terrorists, and what they are really are large groups of insurgents. In the long run, –

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the difference?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: — Well the difference is in size of the organization, but more importantly in terms of al-Qaida and Zarqawi, is they plan for succession. They put a lot of time into planning to replace their leaders. They’re always going to be fighting a more powerful opponent, so when somebody goes down like Mr. al-Kurdi the past week, someone will take his place, who’s not as good probably, but someone who has been an understudy. So America is kind of caught in this law enforcement mentality that if we arrest one, somehow that reduces the organization permanently. And it’s just not the case. It’s just like in our military. If a colonel gets killed, there’s another colonel to take his place. So we really put too much emphasis on each and every capture of a single individual.

RAY SUAREZ: But Professor Nasr, is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi different because of the sort of symbolic space he takes up in the insurgency?

VALI NASR: Well, yes, and also because he has been responsible for particular acts such as beheadings or car bombings that have if you would pushed the envelope in terms of how heinous the insurgency can be, and also because he’s responsible for trying to push Iraq beyond an insurgency into a Shia Sunni civil war. And he’s responsible for openly attacking Shiites as a fifth column of the U.S., as infidels at one point saying the Iraqis faced two enemies, one external one internal, the internal one being the Shiites and calling the Shiites worse than Jews, enemies of Islam and the like.

So in some ways he’s the one who is responsible for giving insurgency a sort of anti-Shia edge to it. His capture will not make the insurgency go away, but it might make this breaking of the communal relations between Shiites and Sunnis a little less obvious.

RAY SUAREZ: This most recent message said to be from Zarqawi continues what you know as than anti-Shia tone, that was a big part of the message. But he also included this sort of argument against democracy. Was this a new part of the strategy?

VALI NASR: No. I mean, the argument against democracy has been part and parcel of fundamentalist argument. But in the case of Zarqawi, he is against democracy because democracy will empower the Shiites, and therefore it’s an evil instrument through which the United States, as he says, is going to give Iraq to the Shias. So Zarqawi is deliberately trying to break bridges between Shiites and Sunnis; they have lived together for a long time, there might be communal tensions, but he wants to push them over the edge into a sectarian civil war, and democracy, fighting democracy is a way of preventing Shiites and Sunnis being able to come together in Iraqi society.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Scheuer, an Interior Ministry spokesman over the weekend said that this new element of the Zarqawi message arguing against having a vote, targeting directly the elections was a sign of desperation; because he hadn’t managed to foment civil war between Shia and Sunni, he was casting around for a new line.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think he’s kind of — that official is whistling past the graveyard, Mr. Suarez. The democracy in effect is government laws made by man. And when Zarqawi who is a very fundamentalist Muslim, or Osama bin Laden, or his like, condemn democracy it’s because the laws are made by man, not by God. The theology they identify with, there is simply no room for man made laws. So in a sense when he says democracy is evil, it’s evil because it has, it doesn’t have God’s imprimatur, so what Zarqawi said about the evil of democracy is not necessarily unique to him, it is something that the Islamist movement around the world has adopted as its own.

RAY SUAREZ: As the person who used to watch al-Qaida for the United States, how significant is this link — Osama bin Laden publicly embracing Zarqawi, gratefully accepting the mantle of al-Qaida.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think it’s clearly important for al-Qaida. Bin Laden has tried to bring many different groups underneath the umbrella of al-Qaida. Clearly Zarqawi thought it was in his interest to join al-Qaida. I really seriously doubt that there’s any command and control being exercised by al-Qaida over Zarqawi. It’s mainly, they’re all moving in the same direction, they’re all attacking the Americans; they’re all attacking the Iraqis or the Afghans who are supporting the American occupation.

So it’s kind of a marriage of convenience, if you will, because Zarqawi, the professor is exactly right, Zarqawi is much more anti-Shia than bin Laden. Bin Laden figures that first we defeat the Americans and try to drive them out of the region, then we take down the Al Sauds (ph), Egyptians and Israelis, and then third we’ll settle the sectarian differences within Islam. Bin Laden has always worked very hard to avoid an outright confrontation with the Shia.

RAY SUAREZ: How did you read, Professor, this open public embrace between al Zarqawi and bin Laden?

VALI NASR: Well, I do agree with Michael that there is no command and control relationship. And in some ways Zarqawi’s movement is very different. Unlike bin Laden’s, it’s not a trans-national global jihad. I mean, he’s focused on a particular territory in a particular fight; it is much more of a guerrilla war than a terrorist operation. He’s engaged in an insurgency. And what Zarqawi is groping for is to get the Sunnis to identify along nationalist lines against the U.S. and against the Shias. So they use each other, if you would, in a way of — as a public relations campaign. Zarqawi hopes to get some of the grandeur of bin Laden in Islamist circles, some of the resources to be dedicated to his movement, and also he still faces a trouble that all guerrilla leaders face and that is how to mobilize not just recruits but the general public to support him both inside Iraq and the outside. And there bin Laden’s lure and sort of hero status helps him.

RAY SUAREZ: With public opinion being a liquid and volatile thing, is there the possibility that some of the air starts to come out of the insurgency if the elections are successfully carried off Sunday?

VALI NASR: Well, if the Sunnis show up at the elections, then the air will begin to come off. If you think about it, the supreme leader of the Iraqi Shias has said go vote. Zarqawi is essentially posing as the supreme religious leader of the Sunnis saying democracy is evil, don’t vote. So if the Sunnis don’t listen to him and they show up at least in some kind of a significant number, then that would be a signal that his group is not able to really capture the hearts and minds of the Sunnis.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Michael Scheuer, same question.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I would put a little different take on that, in that I completely agree with the professor, I think he’s exactly right, that Zarqawi is a more nationalist oriented person trying to drive the point home that the Sunnis and Sunni Islam should dominate Iraq. But Iraq is really spinning out of control. Iraq has become and will continue to be the Afghanistan of the new century, if you will. There are Jihadists coming from all over the Middle East and from the Far East and from Europe to fight in Afghanistan, or, I’m sorry, in Iraq. And it’s being supported d money from Saudi Arabia, money from the Gulf, from private donors. So we’re really seeing the birth of a modern Mujahideen movement that in ways will transcend the simple question of who rules Iraq. Their aim is to drive us out of that country, drive the Americans out of the country. And so I think a lot more is at stake here than simply what happens in the election on Sunday.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Scheuer, Professor Nasr, gentlemen, thank you.