A Miracle in Hibhib

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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When I once drove through Hibhib, the only thing my traveling companion could note about this little town was its fame for a local sort of moonshine distilled by the townsfolk according to an old and secret recipe. He added that the reason Hibhib’s arak – a 50-proof-plus aniseed-flavored alcoholic spirit – is so tasty is the nighttime preparation process during which the fermentation vessels would be dipped into the cool waters of a nearby stream, or so he was told. Well, as of a couple of days ago, Hibhib can claim another conversation starter: Somewhere near here, a famous terrorist called Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi expired. We can all toast a shot of arak to that.

Yes, I am calling it a miracle. Iraq was going through a sustained slide into the abyss of despair, and most people were resigned to seeing their country and the lives they had known torn to shreds by terror and hate. Only something on the magnitude of killing or capturing Zarqawi – the symbolic fount of much that had gone wrong since the end of the Saddam regime – could have convinced Iraqis that there is still hope.

It happened in a remarkably auspicious manner, preserving Zarqawi’s face for a post-mortem mug shot. There was no mistaking that the purple-lipped corpse was indeed the same man who only recently came out with his own boastful Rambo-like video. Details about his last moments enthrall many Iraqis, who circulate rumors about what those moments may have been like. The recently released autopsy details tell us he lived for nearly an hour after the bomb hit. Could it be that he lived long enough to see himself surrounded and manhandled by American “Crusaders” and Iraqi “apostates”? There is something heart-warming in that macabre thought.

Sure, the insurgency and blood-letting will go on for much longer, but no one should underestimate the redemptive power of hope among well-meaning Iraqis. Zarqawi’s death, and its particular manner, brings back bushels of confidence to their shaken cores. It is as if an entire nation had downed some of Hibhib’s arak to steady its nerves for the long trudge ahead.

Strategically, there is some more good news for Iraq. The jihadists will get increasingly frustrated with the Iraqi battlefield, and will seek out greener pastures. For any talented leader craving the limelight as the No. 1 Terrorist, the jihad in Iraq will always be associated with Zarqawi’s name, and none other will eclipse this dark legacy. Such a wannabe will need to find somewhere else in the Middle East to make a name for himself. This is good news for Iraq, but bad news for others as the jihadist battlefield migrates westwards – towards the heartland of the Levant.

Zarqawi’s particular legacy was taking the jihadist agenda to further extremes and greater ambitions. Listening to what turned out to be his last four-hour anti-Shia sermon, released on the Internet a week before his demise but supposedly recorded two months previously, one gets an inside look at how Zarqawi’s head worked.

To start with, he was not very sophisticated. Although his pitch and oratory were formidable, his diatribe followed a recognizable rhythm, as if he were repeating the same mantra over and over by rote. His voice changed only twice: when talking about Noureddin Zenki, an Islamic commander who fought the crusaders (Zarqawi was raised in Jordan on a street bearing Zenki’s name) and when defending the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Ayesha – “our mother” as he puts it – from Shia slanders regarding her chastity. Zarqawi also took prurient interest in, and discussed at length, accusations that Khomeini was a pedophile and that Shia jurists sanction some unorthodox sexual positions.

The next-largest part of the sermon was devoted to a long list of perceived Shia “betrayals” to the Muslim nation. Zarqawi or, more likely, his speechwriter seized upon a large body of polemical literature produced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis over the last two decades in reaction to Khomeini’s revolution, which has been complemented in recent years by jihadist authors writing along the same lines after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zarqawi borrowed at length from these books but was unique in transforming hate speech into a course of action. He argued that there can be no “total victory” over the Jews and Christians unless there is a “total annihilation” of the Shias, who are the secret agents of the enemies of Islam. He even claimed that his fellow terrorists in Hizbullah are only making a show of hating Israel, while their true role is to defend its northern border. He ended it by declaring war on Muqatda Al-Sadr and his “bastards.”

Zarqawi spoke in terms of a grand-scale final solution to the Shia problem, and he counseled doing exactly what earlier Muslim rulers had done when faced by Shia sedition: Put them all to the sword or, alternatively, hurl every man, woman and child into burning trenches. He simplified and broadened jihad, telling the would-be fanatic, “If you can’t find any Christians or Jews to kill, vent your wrath against the next available Shia guy.” It is rather ironic that while Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a Shia politician in charge of a predominately Shia country, continues to deny the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, Zarqawi argued for a similar mass murder against the Shias for being agents of the Jews.

So what does Zarqawi’s legacy entail? The Middle East will look very messy should such Shia-Sunni strife spread. The turmoil would roil Syria (where an offshoot minority Shia sect lords over and represses a Sunni majority), Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and much of the Persian Gulf, as well as places further off in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, decades of Arab nationalist rhetoric against Israel and Wahhabi propaganda against Shias will seamlessly complement each other as the enemy is melded into one. The Sunnis of the Middle East are already primed for such a conflict and there is no need for extensive brainwashing since most of that is already in place.

Iraq will survive the storm as more and more Sunnis realize that there are just too many Shias for them to kill and that they themselves may be decimated by a backlash. But sizable Shia minorities elsewhere will be bullied, compelling Shias everywhere to learn one important lesson from Hibhib: It fell to the Americans to kill off Zarqawi – the worst enemy of the Shias. Thus, they need to realize that America, and not Iran, is their best ally for survival against the encroaching jihadist storm, and America needs to wise up to the fact that rampant anti-Shi’ism has become a central tenet of jihadist ideology, and should plan and act accordingly.

And maybe after all the craziness washes over the Middle East in the next decade or so, Shias, Sunnis, and Americans can sit down together and wash down past hurts with some prized Hibhib arak – especially the sentimentally coveted 2006 vintage.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com.

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