In the Arena

A Note on Al Qaeda

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Several readers have been grumbling about the increased use of “Al Qaeda” to describe the enemy in Iraq. There is, I think, good reason for this usage, but only in the context of the current U.S. offensive. The group in question is actually Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, what the military calls Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which represents the most dangerous sliver–no more than 5%–of the Sunni insurgency. This is also the group, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that is the spine of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq.

In the past, AQI has had a close working relationship with many of the indigenous Sunni insurgency cells like the 1920 Revolution Brigades and Ansar al Sunna. And while it still has allies in the more Salafist of the Sunni groups, it has offended the Sunni tribes and the Baathist remnant of the insurgency. As I’ll explain in the coming edition of the magazine, AQI has been pretty much kicked out of al-Anbar province because it tried to impose a Taliban-like rule–forced marriages, Sharia etc–on Sunnis mostly pissed off at the U.S. for invading their country and imposing a Shi’ite regime. These more secular elements of the Sunni insurgency have turned on AQI and are providing the U.S. with–for the first time in this war–actionable intelligence. And so, the current nationwide operation, Phantom Thunder, is focused upon this insurgent sliver–the 5% represented by AQI.

There is a belief, which I don’t buy, that the rest of the Sunni insurgents will now reconcile with the Shi’ite government. I suspect that if we succeed in clearing out AQI–a big if–it will only clear the ground for the next stage of the civil war, a more forthright, indigenous battle between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Meanwhile, the Shi’ites have a lunatic fringe of their own: the Mahdi Army Special Groups–also less than 5%–who may well be the next focus of U.S. action. A few nights ago, the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told me that the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki had turned very anti-Sadr (Muqtada Sadr is the nominal leader of the Mahdi Army). Given Sadr’s massive popularity among Shi’ites, a move against the Mahdi Army would be suicidal. (As I learned first hand–I found myself underneath a table during dinner as missiles landed nearby on my first night in Iraq–the Mahdi Army Special Groups, not Al Qaeda, are the people shelling the Green Zone most nights, according to military intelligence sources.)

So, bottom line: Others may be painting with a broader, and inaccurate, brush, but when I refer to Al Qaeda in this context, it only means the enemy in the current phase of battle, one particular sliver of the Sunni insurgency. There are other enemies of stability in Iraq, and other battles to come. I remain convinced, as I was before I went to Iraq, that our ability to influence these battles is minimal at best…and that a careful drawdown of troops, starting now, remains our best option.