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    Middle East
     Jan 25, 2007
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The state of the (dis)union
By Pepe Escobar

"Security is a shared destiny. If we are secure, you might be secure, and if we are safe, you might be safe. And if we are struck and killed, you will definitely - with Allah's permission - be struck and killed."
- Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the new al-Qaeda video The Correct Equation.

US President George W Bush's State of the Union address - apart from the amalgam of al-Qaeda and Iran in the same

sentence - was a non-event in terms of a new strategy for the Middle East.

Bush said, "We could expect an epic battle between Shi'ite extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country [Iraq] - and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict."

Bush did admit that "we have been sobered by the enemy's fierce reaction" in Iraq, adding that the war, with its sectarian fury, "is not the fight we entered in Iraq. But it is the fight we are in. It is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory."

With Bush offering nothing new, US and world public opinion might do well to focus on the state of the (dis)union in the heart of Islam. What the "enemy" is thinking has been personified by a video starring al-Qaeda's No 2, Sunni Arab Ayman al-Zawahiri, and an interview by Iraqi Shi'ite nationalist leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Zawahiri, looking like a bearded Woody Allen in a slick, al-Sahab-produced, 14-minute-plus video with English subtitles, once again repeated what al-Qaeda has been stressing for years: if Islam is not attacked, the West won't be attacked. He took great pains to stress that security is a "shared destiny" between Islam and the West. The White House hasn't exactly been listening.

When Zawahiri taunts Bush to send the entire US Army to Iraq, it is not because he believes Arab mujahideen will pull a 1980s Afghanistan remix and "destroy the equivalent of 10 armies". It's because he knows Bush's "surge" and "new way forward" multiply the quagmire while further enraging US public opinion. Al-Qaeda has already telegraphed many times that it would consider an unthinkable (what about the oil?) US withdrawal as an invaluable strategic victory.

Zawahiri's geopolitical reading could not but be optimistic. He states the obvious: al-Qaeda is thriving again in Afghanistan, with Taliban offensives running rings around the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He knows al-Anbar province in Iraq is practically an al-Qaeda-secured emirate. So there's plenty of room left in his address to regiment moderate Muslims and "Arab nationalists and leftists" and incite them to become jihadis in the name of pan-Islamism. There's no guarantee moderate Muslims will be swayed. But "al-Qaeda" - the brand - is set to remain on a roll among poor, disfranchised Muslims on the peripheries of Islam, especially after the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

Paradise now for martyr Muqtada
Muqtada al-Sadr's interview with Italy's La Repubblica, published late last week - his first interview with a Western news medium in recent memory - was also tremendously enlightening. The core of his platform might place him close to Zawahiri: Americans out, now. But that's where the similarities end. Both may be US Public Enemies 2 and 3 (assuming Osama bin Laden is still No 1). But al-Qaeda wants a Sunni Arab-dominated emirate in Iraq, while Muqtada wants a light, Shi'ite-dominated nationalist theocracy not submissive to Iran.

Muqtada regards Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - whom the Sadrists theoretically support in Parliament - as little more than a puppet ("I never trusted him"). He insists Maliki told him he was "forced to fight us". But most of all he correctly evaluates that former interim prime minister Iyad "Butcher of Fallujah" Allawi is the Americans' man, the new "Saddam without a mustache" who would be able, in Washington's scheme, to pacify Iraq with an iron fist.

Muqtada is well aware he's being hunted. He telegraphs that his Mehdi Army won't oppose any resistance to the current Maliki-ordered sort-of-crackdown prior to the upcoming US surge/escalation/"new way forward". And it makes total sense: after all, this is the sacred Shi'ite month of Muharram, which celebrates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Muqtada emphasizes that for a true believer, there could not be a better time to become a martyr: "Paradise is assured." Next month - or a year from now, for that matter - is another story.

Muqtada meanwhile plays a clever game with Maliki. The Sadrists are back in Parliament, but with the promise of a formal timetable to be set in the next few months by the Maliki government for US withdrawal, and with any possible extension submitted to a parliamentary vote. This is a key point uniting the Sadrists and the Sunni parties.

Muqtada characterizes the 80,000-plus Mehdi Army as a free-flowing "popular army" - which is correct; this means it is porous, and infiltrated by all sides. There are at least two major, violent Mehdi Army splinter groups - the ones who may be acting as death squads. What Muqtada does not say is that he is more than happy to have these splinter groups being arrested by Maliki's soldiers. At the same time, he's confident that the majority of the Baghdad police are still Mehdi Army infiltrators.

The Mehdi Army's core - better-trained soldiers loyal to Muqtada, currently lying very low - may be preserved. But Muqtada is also more than aware he may soon have to confront no fewer than four armies: a "shadow army", trained in the Jordanian desert by the

Continued 1 2 

Why the 'big push' sounds horribly familiar (Jan 24, '07)

Southern tribes add to Iraqi resistance (Jan 23, '07)

A blueprint for chaos in Iraq (Jan 19, '07)

Surging toward the holy oil grail (Jan 12, '07)


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