Middle East

From liberation war to jihad

By Pepe Escobar

AMMAN - It took one Shi'ite named Ali formally to turn the Iraqi war of national liberation into a pan-Islamic jihad.

Last week, Sergeant Ali Jaffar Mousa Hamadi al-Nomani became the first suicide bomber of the war, in an incident outside Najaf. On Monday, American soldiers killed seven Iraqi women and children, also near Najaf. They were among 13 people traveling in a van that didn't stop at a US checkpoint. According to the US version, the soldiers first fired into the air, then into the engine, and then into the passenger compartment. According to the Iraqi version, they fired with no warning. The tragic incident is graphic proof of how Washington's military planners haven't read their Sun Tzu ("Know your enemy and you know yourself"): How can you become a welcomed liberator when you have to be suspicious of an entire civilian population?

For Baghdad, all the martyrs in this unprecedented mix of national liberation war and Islamic jihad are called Ali. Like Shi'ite Sergeant Ali, the bomber from Najaf, and like Shi'ite farmer Ali, also from Najaf, who shot down an Apache helicopter with a World War I-era rifle. These two Alis are being exhorted to become the models to be emulated by all Iraqis. The Shi'ites got the message - and that's one extra reason they are not welcoming the British in the south as liberators. Two of every three Iraqis are called Ali. The name is as popular with Shi'ites as it is with Sunnis, for obvious reasons: Ali, the cousin of the Holy Prophet Mohammed, is simultaneously the first imam of the Shi'ites and the fourth caliph of the Sunnis.

Since the suicide bombing, the ultra-secular Ba'ath Party has begun remodeling the national-liberation war into a pan-Islamic jihad against the foreign Anglo-American invaders. The Baghdad leadership in every news conference now salutes the "martyrs from all the Arab world". According to Brigadier-General Hazem al-Rawi, the Iraqi military spokesman, the jihadis have come to Iraq to find paradise - a reference to the eternal life in bliss assured to a martyr in a war against an oppressor.

Hundreds of Arab-Afghans, a Hezbollah contingent, dozens of Algerians, a group of Syrians who went to Mosul in the north and a contingent from the al-Quds brigade - the military wing of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad - are already involved in jihad inside Iraq. Islamic Jihad leader Ramada Abdullah Shallah has stated that now "it's one war from Jenin to Baghdad", with the objective of defeating "the new Mongols invading the capital of the Islamic Caliphate" - a reference, still very vivid in the minds of Muslims everywhere, to the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols, led by Hulagu, Genghis Khan's grandson, in the 13th century.

Some jihadis have already been taken prisoner. According to a Lebanese source, about 30 from Syria and the Maghreb were captured on Sunday in Iraqi territory, on their way to Baghdad, by a US Army patrol.

This jihad transcends most barriers. Shi'ite imams as well as Sunni sheikhs are calling for jihad at every Friday prayer sermon, not only all over Iraq but also in Damascus, Cairo, Sanaa, Ramallah and Tehran. Ali Sistani, the Marja of Najaf, a model of religious rectitude, has issued a fatwa according to which jihad is now an obligation for Shi'ites. In Baghdad, Sheikh Abdel Karim Biarah, the Grand Mufti of Iraq, issued a similar fatwa for Sunnis.

The Ba'ath Party is actively disseminating these calls for jihad to solidify monolithic support for the Mujaheed al-Kebir (the "great warrior of faith"), none other than Saddam Hussein himself. The only sector of Iraqi society not touched by these exhortations are the Christians - most of them based in Mosul. By aggressively playing the religious card, the Ba'athists can be assured of the support of Sunnis - including Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, very influential in Iraq in recent years, especially in Mosul, and very close to Saddam's web of security services.

And most of all the Ba'athists can be assured of support from the Shi'ites, as well as the web of Bedouin tribes - which can be Sunni or Shi'ite. It's important to remember that during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Iraqi army leadership closely monitored the southern tribes who helped them fight the Iranians. The very powerful Shamar confederation is an important player among these Bedouin tribes. They are mostly nomads; they travel on horseback bypassing artificial borders; and they respond quickly to the concept of jihad. They wouldn't exactly understand the concept of a nationalistic war of liberation.

The impact of this jihad also transcends Iraq's borders. Afghan sources note that Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself has taken the cue in Afghanistan and has reissued his own fatwa - calling once again for a holy war against foreign troops in Afghanistan.

By hyping the jihad to unparalleled levels in modern Iraq, the Ba'ath Party is managing to implicate practically the whole population in the resistance. But the party hasn't forgotten more mundane aspects of paradise. You have the option of becoming a martyr, or enriching yourself. Every captured American or English pilot is worth US$18,000, paid in cash. A dead pilot is worth half. Every captured enemy armored vehicle can be kept. If it is destroyed, its value will be estimated, and the captor will also be paid cash for it.

Arab nationalism is a concept that has practically disappeared from the official book, replaced by the rhetoric of jihad. In his most recent 20-minute speech, Saddam hailed Iraq as the "motherland of jihad" and made numerous references to "Iraqi mujahideen", not to the Ba'ath Party leadership or the common Arab cause, in a reference presumably to the mujahideen who fought against Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Shi'ites still won't dare to cross Saddam. Iraqi exiles in Jordan, mostly Sunni, keep stressing that Saddam, like the great Babylonian emperors, remains the only power capable of controlling an ultra-volatile Iraq. By all - jihadi - means necessary.

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Apr 2, 2003

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