There is always a moment during a raging battle when one side realizes that the field has been won, and the other side collapses in retreat and confusion. The curious thing about the Iraqi insurgency is that this moment has arrived, yet both the victors, in this case the Americans and the Iraqi government, and the losers, Al Qaeda and the other jihadist groups, are reluctant to acknowledge it.
But make no mistake, the battle has been turned and we are witnessing the beginning of a jihadist meltdown.
Six months ago, many of the strategists behind the Sunni insurgency, faced with a more effective counterinsurgency effort, began to wonder just how long they could keep their momentum given their diminishing resources and talent. These strategists realized that their "resistance" would just peter out over time, as classical insurgencies tend to do. Some argued that, given one last push, the Americans would be sufficiently distressed to grab at cease-fire negotiations that would end with a hasty American withdrawal, leaving the insurgents to work things out with a much-weakened Iraqi government on more favorable terms.
Others, like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the organization founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saw that there was no future for their vision of establishing a Taliban-like state should these negotiations with the Americans get underway, which would only serve to strengthen the hand of the rival insurgent factions that counsel this course.
This sense that they were running out of time compelled Al Qaeda to take a bold initiative of declaring the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq four months back, appointing the hitherto unknown Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its head. This was no propaganda stunt for Al Qaeda. This was the real thing: the nucleus state for the caliphate, with al-Baghdadi as the candidate caliph.
But this was a fatal strategic mistake for Al Qaeda, a mistake that threatens to pull down all the other jihadist insurgent groups along with it. Al Qaeda tried to leap over reality, but it was a leap into the abyss of uncertainty. Trying to pick a caliph is fraught with historical and judicial complications since there is no historical precedent — not even from the time of the Prophet Muhammad — that would serve for an uncontroversial transfer of power. It is one of the most delicate ideological matters among jihadists, a matter so sensitive that most of them have decided to leave it aside for the time being lest it result in splintering off dissenters.
But Zarqawi's successors, who inherited the leadership after his death last June and who are, for the most part, rash young ideologues who consider themselves the avant-garde of contemporary radical Islamism, felt that the doddering old guard of Al Qaeda — aged and increasingly inconsequential has-beens such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — would never summon the nerve to force the issue of the caliphate and get it going. So they rushed into action, and it has exploded in their faces, since no other groups seem enthused to join them in this risky venture. This mistake has huge implications for the Iraqi insurgency since Al Qaeda accounts for most of it, and its strategic and ideological failure can quickly be turned into a battlefield rout. At this point, the activities conducted by the various insurgent groups can be broken down as follows:
• The Al Qaeda-led Islamic State of Iraq orchestrates 60% of the actions, including most of the spectacular mass murders of civilians and military engagements with the American military. Most of the rank and file is Iraqi as is al-Baghdadi himself, but foreign nationals are better represented in the leadership.
• Other jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Mujaheddin Army, and the 1920 Revolt Brigades, most of which are Iraqi organizations with longstanding Salafist roots, conduct 30% of the operations.
• Various Iraqi Baathist factions orchestrate 10%.
When the insurgency started in mid-2003, it was largely led, funded, and mobilized by the Baathists. But over time, and through Zarqawi's pioneering work, the jihadists began to take over, and the role of the Baathists, per se, diminished. Zarqawi converted Baathists and Saddam-loyalists into jihadists by fanning the flames of sectarianism. He had to gradually wean them off the secular, and ostensibly nonsectarian, ideology of Baathism to his way of thinking, and to do that, he needed a dark force that could appeal to the Baathist rank and file: hardcore anti-Shiism.
Under Saddam, the Shiites were disenfranchised under a longstanding, subtle apartheid regime, which he inherited and which he on occasion allowed to become blatantly sectarian. Baathism, being a fascist-like nationalist ideology, could set ethnic Arabs against the Persian race of Iranians, but the new Shiites who took power after the fall of the Saddam regime were themselves Arabs, many from Iraqi tribes that encompassed members of both sects. Baathism was found lacking in focusing Sunni wrath over losing power to the Shiites, and this is where Zarqawi entered the picture to provide an unabashed sectarian outlet for their anger and vengeance.
Initially, Zarqawi's strategy worked very well, and it almost brought Iraq to the verge of an all-out civil war that would have pushed the Sunnis to submit to Al Qaeda as their only protectors. But something else happened that rendered his approach as yet another strategic mistake: The Sunnis realized that Al Qaeda wasn't strong enough to beat back a full Shiite assault — the group couldn't even protect Sunni communities from Shiite death squads — and that Al Qaeda's vision for reestablishing the caliphate would mean decades of unending warfare. Most Sunnis thus fell in with the crowd that counseled finding a negotiated settlement with the Americans and the Iraqi government — this time, at whatever cost. After four years of this insurgency, the Sunnis have grown weary and tired, and they want to move on.
But that is something that Al Qaeda would not brook, and it set out to force the other jihadist groups to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and to al-Baghdadi himself, or else. Almost everyone balked at this threat, and sharp words were exchanged among them on the streets of the Sunni triangle and on jihadist Internet discussion forums, and then a bloodbath ensued. Things have deteriorated to the point where these other jihadist groups have begun informing on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leaders and local headquarters to the Iraqi government, so that American and Iraqi forces could raid these locations and arrest those who only recently were fellow insurgents of the guys now snitching.
There is no greater joy for someone who cares about Iraq than to watch Al Qaeda and these other jihadist groups go at each other with the bloodthirsty abandon and frenzy that only crazed zealots can muster. The bloodletting has gone far beyond the point of any possible reconciliation, for Al Qaeda must destroy all the others in order to survive, and ditto for the others as they face down Al Qaeda. It has turned into an all-or-nothing fight among the most dangerous insurgents, and it is heartening to see them engaged and distracted in destroying each other.
Now if only the American press would report on this jihadist meltdown so that policymakers in Washington can rally the martial spirit to bring this battle to a crushing end for the enemy.
Mr. Kazimi can be reached at [email protected]