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THE ROVING EYE
Ayatollah's killing: Winners and losers
By Pepe Escobar

PARIS - Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, ripped to pieces by the Volkswagen car bomb in front of the sacred Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf which killed 125 and left more than 230 wounded after last Friday's prayers, was the quintessential martyr of the current Iraqi jihad. All that was left of him was a charred fragment of muscle which was sent to Baghdad for DNA identification. A prominent cleric of a Shi'ite culture deeply imbued with the concept of martyrdom, fate in the end dictated that al-Hakim would tragically fall to a jihad conducted by Sunni Muslims against a foreign invader just because he was kind of a pacifist: although he wanted the end of the American occupation, he was against armed resistance under the current circumstances.

No Shi'ite would dream of carrying out such blasphemous violence on the doorstep of the Imam Ali Shrine, the third most sacred site for Shi'ites after Mecca and Medina. Grand Ayatollah al-Hakim was the victim of an assassination - as was the UN's special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. The hundreds of dead and wounded in the horrific Najaf massacre were just - to borrow Pentagon terminology - "collateral damage". Al-Hakim may have become another high-profile victim - like Vieira de Mello - of what Iraqis are now calling "the Saddam network", which has already sabotaged oil pipelines and bombed the Jordanian embassy and the UN compound in Baghdad.

But what if this was the work of somebody else? European intelligence sources in Brussels tell Asia Times Online that ordinary Iraqis are becoming increasingly convinced the bombings are part of a sinister American conspiracy to plunge the country into total chaos and so force the UN to take responsibility for mopping-up operations, thus saving American face. Others blame Israel's Mossad, which infiltrated Iraq even before the invasion. Israel - with a history of political assassinations - would be the big loser in the event of an Islamic government coming to power in Iraq. Al-Hakim, a key political player, wanted a moderate, Shi'ite-led, Islamic regime for the country.

A few days before his death, he was still telling a Spanish newspaper he hoped the American-appointed governing council would become representative, "but for the moment nothing very real has come out of it". He believed the Constitutional Assembly which will write the future Iraqi constitution should be democratically elected, "otherwise the constitution would be rejected". And he stressed that "the occupying troops are neither qualified nor capable of resolving our problems, which are very serious and could provoke a social explosion. In which case, they would be responsible." He was a moderate, and he had a broad constituency, but he was a post-Saddam leader-in-the-making who did not please either the Americans, the secular "Saddam network" or Wahhabi jihadis.

The resistance against the US occupation has been carried out by myriad groups, which call themselves names like Iraqi Resistance Brigade, Army of Mohammed, Muslim Fighters of the Victorious Sects, General Command of the Iraqi Armed Resistance and Liberation Forces, and Islamic Armed Group of al-Qaeda (Fallujah branch). They have upgraded from attacking and ambushing American soldiers to organizing complex operations like the UN and Imam Ali Shrine bombings. The Americans at first thought they were fighting a hard core of 600 former Republican Guards and Saddam fedayeen with up to 11,000 "reserves". But now the hard core is estimated at at least 7,000, all responding to local command and self-sufficient in terms of funds, weapons and military know-how.

It's wrong to view the resistance as "remnants of Saddam's regime", as the Pentagon insists on doing. The Saddam remnants - former soldiers and Ba'athists - are joined by any number of Iraqis angered by the occupation, and of course by Saudi, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni and northern African jihadis, many of them Arab-Afghans trained in the Afghan jihad. In this particular sense, we are finally able to see something of the missing link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda that the White House and the Pentagon were so desperate to announce in the run up to the war. But Saddam Hussein seems to have been clever enough to prepare the conditions for the linkage to emerge only after the war, as a time bomb designed to blow up in the Pentagon's face.

It's the deadliest of combinations, says a European intelligence official monitoring global terror: "The former Republican Guards, Ba'ath Party officials and members of security services know the terrain, know everybody and have loads of cash. And the jihadis not only focus on the special incentive of fighting the American infidels on sacred Arab soil: they have the necessary military knowhow." In the case of the Najaf bombing, there's the added bonus of a meeting of minds. Saddam's secular regime and its sycophants persecuted the Shi'ites, and the jihadis are essentially Wahhabis or crypto-Wahhabis, for whom the Shi'ites are as perverse an enemy as the Jews and the Christians.

Did Saddam plan all this? Of course he did - at least a great deal of it. He knew he would lose the war, but he had enough time to conceive a three-pronged form of resistance: nationalist, Ba'athist and Islamist. European intelligence knows that months before the US invasion Saddam had already distributed reserves of troops, weapons and cash around Iraq. He himself recruited the key guerrilla chiefs, whose ages range from 18 to 35. He conceived them as operating independently, but with himself as commander-in-chief. The Saddam view of the resistance is not necessarily shared by most of the resistance groups, which consider the Ba'athists a bunch of losers. These groups - all of them tribal - are essentially nationalist: they are defending Iraqi pride and Iraqi land. But in Saddam's scenario they are also useful as added firepower and a nuisance factor against the invaders.

After Baghdad fell without a fight on April 9, scores of Ba'ath Party cadres took refuge in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and Mauritania. The Ba'ath Party has operated cells in these countries since 1968. The idea - brilliant in itself - was to have these cadres rally the Arab masses in these countries to join a jihad against the superpower which dared to occupy sacred Arab land. The masses may not be responding yet - but certainly professional jihadis already have. With the Najaf bombing, the "Saddam network" has scored another big hit: it has managed in one stroke to simultaneously divide the Shi'ites (62 percent of the Iraqi population) and hurl hundreds of thousands of them into the streets chanting anti-US slogans. Ayatollah al-Hakim's brother is a member of the American-imposed interim governing council, which has absolutely no power and is considered a sham by the majority of Iraqis. Al-Hakim's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has been vilified by other Shi'ite factions because it is - at least for the moment - against armed resistance. And many Shi'ites also remember very well that SCIRI backed Iran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

As Asia Times Online has reported, holy Najaf is at the dead center of what happens next in Iraq. Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, first the imam at Ali's Shrine, Dr Haider Alkelydar, and then Shi'ite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who returned from exile in London, were assassinated. As chaos takes over, Shi'ites are increasingly in favor of armed resistance against the Americans. But the top de facto religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, does not want to get drawn into any political wrestling match: he is still adopting a "wait and see" attitude. The one character who has everything to gain from al-Hakim's murder is young Moqtada al-Sadr, extremely respected because he is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr. Moqtada al-Sadr favors armed struggle - right now - and that's exactly why he would be a useful ally to both the "Saddam network" and the jihadis. Their objective is total confrontation with the Americans - with no space for appeasers like the UN's Vieira de Mello or SCIRI's al-Hakim.

European diplomats are very cynical about the possibility of the neo-conservatives controlling the Bush administration swallowing their pride and turning to the UN for help. Even the UN is facing a no-win situation, and the diplomats in New York and Geneva know it. In the unlikely event blue helmets were deployed in Iraq, it's practically certain they would be regarded by most of the population as the tail end of the US occupying serpent. Especially if Washington insists on not relinquishing one inch of control of the whole, disastrous operation. So this is the gift of Washington's neo-conservatives to the world: instead of a democratic Iraq, a putrid state infected by a guerrilla virus and on the verge of a devastating civil and ethnic war.

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Sep 2, 2003



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