Sunday, January 22, 2006 A Rebel Crack-Up? -- Jan. 30, 2006 -- Page 1

Even by the standards of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the suicide bombing in Ramadi on Jan. 5 was stunning for its audacity. The bomber had blended into the ranks of Iraqi police recruits outside the Ramadi Glass and Ceramics Works before blowing up his explosive vest, loaded with ball bearings for maximum devastation. The blast killed two U.S. service members and more than 70 Iraqi police recruits--but it also turned out to be a deadly miscalculation by the jihadis and their leader, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. Most of the victims were local Sunnis, and they were joining the police force under the protection of tribal chieftains who, with the U.S. military's approval, are trying to impose order over their violent swath of Iraq. After the Jan. 5 blast, according to insurgents, tribal chiefs in Ramadi notified al-Qaeda that they were withdrawing protection in the city for the group's fighters. The jihadis responded by gunning down several prominent Sunni clerics and tribal leaders. Now al-Qaeda fighters who once swaggered through Ramadi are marked men. "It's war," says an Iraqi intelligence officer with contacts among the insurgents.[snip]

"We're starting to see a little bit more every day," says Army Lieut. General Ray Odierno, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In places like Ramadi and Fallujah, Odierno says, "we've had some Iraqi insurgents' groups actually put up defenses to protect their people against al-Qaeda forces."[snip]

Sunni politicians managed to convince some key rebel groups that unless the Sunni minority voted, the elections would enhance the power of Kurdish and religious Shi'ite parties, some of which have ties to Iran. (Election results released last week showed that Sunni Arab parties will hold 55 seats in the new parliament, up from 17 in the previous one.) Abu Noor al-Iraqi, a leader of the Unified Leadership of Mujahedin, a new amalgam of four nationalist guerrilla outfits, tells TIME that "when al-Zarqawi's group threatened to attack the polling centers, we stood against them."

Since then, the fissures between the nationalists and al-Zarqawi have widened. U.S. political and military officers persuaded some Sunni tribal chiefs to send their youths into the security forces to ensure that Sunnisnot Shi'ite outsiders--would command their cities' police. But in recent meetings with various insurgent groups, says a nationalist field commander near Ramadi, al-Zarqawi's lieutenants made it clear that any Iraqi who joined the security forces was considered the enemy, thus drawing a battle line between the jihadis and their former comrades.[snip]

Read the rest. A Rebel Crack-Up? -- Jan. 30, 2006 -- Page 1

Of particular note also were these reports:

After the backlash in Ramadi, al-Zarqawi's men supposedly retreated into the rocky western deserts but have continued to target local leaders. A senior security officer says jihadist fighters followed a Ramadi chieftain from the powerful Dulaimi tribe into Baghdad on Wednesday; handcuffed him, a nephew and a senior security officer for the western provinces; and executed each of them with a bullet through the head. In Samarra members of the Alboubaz tribe killed four foreign fighters and drove out 11 others after the assassination of a local police chief. After the tribesmen urged Sunni youths to join the local police, al-Zarqawi got his revenge. The instructors weren't going to make the same mistake they had made in Ramadi by allowing recruits to become an easy target for a suicide bomber, so they had them sign up in Baghdad. But al-Zarqawi's men were tipped off. Al-Qaeda ambushed the Sunnis' bus on the road and kidnapped the recruits. Their bodies have yet to be found.

Actually, as of Sunday, they did find their bodies:

The bodies of the 23 men were found partially buried near Dujail, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, said Interior Ministry police Lt. Thair Mahmoud. They had been abducted Wednesday while traveling from Baghdad to their homes in Samarra after failing to be accepted at a police recruit center.

While the "Crack Up" report ends on a pessimistic note, it is more a matter of "managing expectations" than a true barometer of the situation. In fact, one of the key comments was concerning the attack on a Dulaimi tribal chief by Zarqawi. The Dulaimi tribe is one of the largest tribes in Iraq in the Al Anbar and Baghdad area. If there was one thing that Zarqawi should have avoided, it was a p*ssing match with this group. Withdrawal of protection from this tribe means denial of a vast territory for operations.

Which is why this report about Zarqawi and his "suicide belt" is so interesting:

IRAQ’S most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, goes to sleep every night wearing a suicide belt packed with explosives, according to a leading insurgent who met him two weeks ago.
“He never takes it off,” said Sheikh Abu Omar al-Ansari, leader of a Sunni resistance group called Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura (Army of the Victorious Sect).

“He told me: ‘I would rather blow myself up and die as a martyr — and kill a few Americans along the way — than be arrested and humiliated by them’.”

It would be nice if we could come up with the frequency for the detonator. But that is not the most fascinating part of the story:

“He is known by America and the world as the prince of beheadings, the murdering sheikh of innocents, the blood spiller,” said Ansari.

By contrast, he said, Zarqawi seemed a “simple” man and put on a show of humility at a two-day meeting to secure the co-operation of the Army of the Victorious Sect and other groups with Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

According to the sheikh, Zarqawi sat cross-legged on a rug to eat with his guests and some of his 12 bodyguards, most of whom also wore suicide belts and carried American and Russian automatic rifles.[snip]

The sheikh also claimed one of the most widely circulated pieces of supposed western intelligence about Zarqawi — that he sought treatment in Iraq after losing a leg in a US missile strike on Al-Qaeda militants — is false.

Ansari confirmed that he has both his legs and “walks with confidence and balance”.

He appeared to have recovered from chest and shoulder injuries he suffered in a separate US airstrike last year. [snip]

The meeting with Zarqawi had been arranged to help insurgent groups co-ordinate their attacks on coalition forces. [snip]

Al-Qaeda members said the insurgent groups attending the meeting were discussing possible co-ordination of their attacks and plans to create an Islamic state.

The next morning, the leaders of four other Sunni groups joined the gathering. [snip]

The meeting led to the subsequent announcement about an umbrella body called the Mujaheddin Council, which posted a statement on the internet two weeks ago. The council claims to be representing Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Army of the Victorious Sect and the four lesser-known Sunni groups. Other leading Sunni groups were conspicuously absent.

The development suggested to some Middle East watchers that despite his reputation, Zarqawi may be struggling to consolidate his grip on the resistance. Many Iraqis have tired of violence and politicians were beginning negotiations this weekend to form a coalition government after election results announced on Friday.

“Zarqawi is not in the position he used to be before — he seems to have lost the hospitality that he enjoyed in the past in Iraq,” said Dr Nimrod Raphaeli, a specialist at the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington. “He is trying to find a new base and new links with other groups.”

Raphaeli is probably correct in his assessment. It also ties in with the letter from Zawahiri last year urging Zarqawi not to make Shi'ite killings so prominent and spectacular as well as to tone down the religious discussions. He also seemed to have been telling Zarqawi that he needed to find some people participating in the election to be their political wing. Almost all things that Zarqawi rejected.

He seems quite willing to cut his nose off to spite his face. Bad for him, good for us and the Iraqis althoug it's clear that it is not the Shia killing the Sunni leadership:

Elsewhere, the bodies of prominent Sunni Arab tribal leader, Sayid Ibrahim Ali, 75, and his 28-year-old son, Ayad, were found in a field near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, police said. They were shot as they left a funeral Saturday.

Don't mistake the situation. Zarqawi can't do anything to us militarily. It is completely political. However, militarily and politically we can damage him. He wears that suicide belt for more reasons than to avoid capture. The underlying point is that Zarqawi cannot trust the people that he meets not to turn him in. He cannot trust but a few body guards. Even his allies may decide that he is too troublesome to keep around. Bin Laden's recent statement that Zarqawi is a "prince of Al Qaida" can be analyzed, as well, that bin Laden is trying to extend his protection over him. It is not praise. He is telling these others that betraying Zarqawi is betraying Al Qaida.

However, it is unlikely that it will have effect on some of the insurgent groups if Zarqawi continues to take out their leadership.

One other interesting point that was not lost on me and should have some interesting connotations for westerners: at the meeting discussed, Zarqawi came with 12 "body guards" with suicide vests; before prayers, according to the interviewed "sheikh", water was scarce so Zarqawi fetched a bucket of water and helped the attendees to wash prior to prayers (something that includes the hands and the feet, is typically left to "junior" members or servants); sat around talking religion and dining on a meal of rice and chicken.

The picture would have been complete if he announced that he knew somebody would betray him and he knew who that person was. Of course, that might have been the point of the suicide vests.

Update from Iraq the Model via Threats Watch and Winds of Change:

(ITM)Meanwhile, Mowaffac al-Rubai’i warned today from the allegedly continuous negotiations between the Americans and Iraqi militants and he strongly condemned these negotiations which he described as a threat to national security.

While the American embassy today resumed its talks with the Sunni leading politicians, 6 Iraqi militant groups announced that they will unite their forces and join the rest of resident of Anbar and Salahiddin in fighting al-Qeda. The new militant groups included the Islamic army, the Anbar martyr’s brigades and the 1920 revolution brigades.

This change sounds positive and encouraging. Although I always preferred that the government deals with such issues instead of militias because if those militias succeed in their new mission, they will have demands and they will gain leverage in later bargains when they will be asked to drop their arms (that’s if they have a plan to do so in the future).

However, the facts on the ground are not the same and the theory of excluding militias can be overlooked for a while because the government already has no enough power in the areas in question while those militias know their targets and they can reach those targets; they know the battlefield very well and they have the sufficient intelligence for this kind of battle.

Bill Roggio at Threats Watch goes on to say:

The defection of insurgent groups and Sunni support is a continuing trend which must give Zarqawi and al-Qaeda’s high command pause. The refocus of al-Qaeda efforts towards Afghanistan becomes understandable as more information on the fractionalization of Iraqi’s insurgency is released.

I happen to agree with him. There are two factors at play:

1) Al Qaida succeeded in collapsing their own support network through arrogance and short sightedness in Iraq;

2) AQ rightly surmises that the Europeans are much weaker than Americans in Afghanistan and is looking for quick, short term victories to bolster their flagging "wasta" in the region. They figure they can get such groups as the Danish to talk about not going into "dangerous areas" and, voila, they succeed in routing the westerners.

However, I believe they have overplayed their hand in Afghanistan already. This will not be a situation like the post Russian conflict where so many groups go at each other in civil war where AQ can pretend to be allies with a particular group to support them in war and use it to drive fund raising back home in the magical kingdom. The problem is, as much as any might say Afghanistan was a "puppet" regime, it's backed by an international coalition including the big European countries and the Afghanis have elected people several times to represent them so an insurgency or civil war the likes that was suffered in the late 80's and early 90's will not get as much sympathy back home. Even better, now that the would be fund raisers have gotten a taste of murder and mayhem in their back yard, large scale terrorist attacts used as a war tactic, instead of a political tactic, where the civilian casualties among fellow Muslims reaches hundreds if not thousands during multiple back to back attacks on one day, will do the same that it did in Iraq, if it hasn't already begun to have such an impact.

If they can't hide and rely on the usual tribal and Muslim tradition of hospitality as a major part of their security, what can they do?

Apparently offer a truce while they try to sort out exactly where they can go next.

Maybe back to Chechnya or Sudan or Somalia.

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