IN THE RED ZONE Masri: Dead or alive,
the terror continues By Pepe
BAGHDAD - The breaking news came
around noon, on state-run Al-Iraqiya TV, and it
hit the Shi'ite slum, Sadr City, as well as the
rest of Baghdad, as a new "shock and awe": Sheikh
Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, popularly known in Baghdad
as Abu al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of
al-Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed in the al-Nabai
area of Taji, north Baghdad. That's what Interior
Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abu al-Kareem
Khalaf was telling
Al-Iraqiya live - to the
incredulity of many a viewer.
spokesman was also saying something even more
striking. Abu al-Masri had not been killed by
militias at the ministry (the seventh floor is
considered "Iranian territory"; virtually no one
is admitted). He had not been killed by death
squads. And he had not been killed by US forces.
He fell victim to "internal fighting" - which
could be a reference to a coalition of Sunni
tribes that has been fighting al-Qaeda's extreme
methods, or even to al-Qaeda itself. Khalaf
actually said Masri was killed by his own al-Qaeda
jihadis in an ambush at the Safi Bridge north of
Baghdad, an assertion that should be taken with an
extreme pinch of salt.
The reaction in
almost-3-million-strong Sadr city - where al-Qaeda
in Iraq (or "the Wahhabis") is viewed as worse
than any plague - was predictably ecstatic. There
was jubilation at police checkpoints (all of them
manned by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army). But then
came the "ifs" - Masri's death had already been
officially announced twice in the past few months.
The ministry had "definitive intelligence reports"
Masri was dead. But it had not seen the corpse
yet. The Pentagon could not confirm anything.
Then government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh
showed up, once again on Al-Iraqiya, saying, "This
does not represent an official government
announcement." The truth would only emerge after a
series of DNA tests. If, of course, there was a
body. Interior Ministry officials would only say,
"Our people have seen the body."
finally, inevitably, came the denials. The Islamic
State of Iraq hit the Internet with a vengeance,
proclaiming to the ummah, "Sheikh Abu Hamza
al-Mujahir, God protect him, is alive and he is
still fighting the enemy of God."
in fact, is really happening?
been the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq - personally
approved by Osama bin Laden - since last June,
when former ueber-bogeyman Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi was killed by a US air strike in
Diyala. Like Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's No 2,
he is a former member of the Egyptian Islamic
Jihad. In November, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced the
formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, a
Salafi-jihadist constellation. Masri was the new
state's "minister of war". The leader of the
Islamic State of Iraq is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been striving to
impose the fierce Salafi-jihadist Wahhabi ethos
and consolidate hegemonic power among the myriad
groups in the Sunni Arab resistance. Most of these
groups are patriotic and nationalist, and many are
crammed with ex-Ba'athists: they view foreign
"Wahhabis" with extreme suspicion.
backlash was inevitable. Last autumn, more than
200 powerful Sunni sheikhs in al-Anbar province
constituted the Anbar Sovereignty Council - led by
powerful Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha -
basically to counteract al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sheikh
Abu Risha could not be reached on his Thuraya
satphone to confirm Masri's killing.
According to council rules, every family
in Anbar province must give at least one son to
the struggle. Recently, as Asia Times Online
reported, nine key Sunni Arab resistance groups -
including Jaysh Ansar al-Sunnah, the Islamic Front
for the Iraqi Resistance, and the fierce al-Qaeda
in Iraq enemy, the 1920 Revolution Brigades -
issued a statement positioning themselves against
the US occupation, against Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki's government and against the Islamic
State of Iraq and its leader, Baghdadi.
Baghdadi may have recently boasted that
Iraq, under US occupation, has been turned into "a
university for jihad". But the fact is the Islamic
State of Iraq has been besieged by US and Iraqi
forces in Baquba. There is a lot of nuance,
though. According to Pentagon spin, what has been
happening in Anbar is a battle of US
counterinsurgency versus al-Qaeda. Wrong: what's
really happening is the Islamic State of Iraq and
al-Qaeda in Iraq against the non-Salafi-jihadist
Sunni Arab resistance. The 1920 Revolutionary
Brigades and Ansar al-Sunnah have been attacking
al-Qaeda in Iraq almost daily in Diyala,
Salahuddin and Anbar. The key issue is the split
between al-Qaeda and former Ba'athists - a split
that has always been fierce.
or not, the killing of Masri will make absolutely
no difference - as did the killing of Zarqawi. The
Islamic State of Iraq's tentacles are so
far-reaching they have already deeply infiltrated
Baghdad neighborhoods such as Amriya and Dora.
One, two, a thousand Masris are waiting in the
wings. Al-Qaeda's strategy won't change - and that
means non-stop bloody bombings to keep inciting
Sunnis to attack the majority Shi'ites.
The so-called "sanctions generation" in
Iraq - those who grew up under the dreaded United
Nations sanctions during the 1990s - will keep
churning out legions of ready-to-die martyrs. And
after all, hardcore Islamists - local and foreign
- and Arab nationalists are still fighting a
common enemy: the US occupation.