In an effort to confuse and demoralize the American people about progress in the war in Iraq, the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post on April 7 carried body-bag photographs of dead Americans from the war. This followed gruesome photos and film footage of the charred bodies of four American contractors being dragged by anti-American mobs in Iraq and hung from bridges. Many American newspapers outraged their readers by running the photos on page one.
The message: America is in a quagmire and must withdraw from Iraq.
In the midst of the increasing violence, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) gave a speech referring to the conflict as “George Bush’s Vietnam.” Echoing Kennedy’s speech, anti-U.S. Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr warned on April 8 that “Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers.”
Sensing that the terrorists had the U.S. on the run, the communist front, International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) promptly announced emergency “U.S. Out of Iraq” protests in Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Before that, the media had focused their scrutiny on the morale of U.S. forces, citing “evidence” that participation in the war was causing American soldiers to kill themselves at an alarming rate.
Citing a survey of the troops, the Associated Press claimed that, “the suicide rate among American soldiers in Iraq is much higher than for the Army as a whole?” The story said that investigators found a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared with a rate of 12.8 for the Army as a whole. However, we only learned at the end of the article that the U.S. civilian rate for the 18-34 age group, which is the age range of most soldiers, is significantly higher?21.5 per 100,000.
And the evidence shows that other factors are involved in the suicides?and the generally low morale?reported in the survey.
At a briefing, Lt. Col. Jerry Swanner explained that, in previous wars, “we did not have e-mail set up, Internet access and satellite phones that could deliver in real-time information from home. So our soldiers have much more immediate access to some of the problems that are occurring on the home front.”
Some of these problems are personal. But some of the troops are demoralized by coverage of the anti-war protests and the constant liberal attacks on President Bush, their commander-in-chief, for his conduct of the war. Soldiers back from Iraq have told their families, friends and neighbors about the negative impact of this political assault. They say the anti-war protests help the enemy fight harder.
Blueprint For Terror
Lt. Col. Ralph Peters (Ret.), now an author and columnist, said that the recent carnage?which was heavily publicized here and around the world?has to be kept in perspective. Typically, the U.S. loses about the same number of people on a Memorial Day weekend on the streets of America that we have lost in Iraq. Peters said the attacks reflect the desperation of the losing side in this war.
These attacks were followed by an uprising of several thousand militiamen loyal to the radical Shiite cleric, al-Sadr, who wanted to stage a power play before the U.S. turns over sovereignty to a new Iraq government on June 30.
The most significant but underplayed development in the increased violence was the April 6 release of an audiotape allegedly from Jordanian Musab al-Zarqawi, a close associate of Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi threatened to kill General John Abizaid, head of the Central Command; L. Paul Bremmer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq; and “their generals, soldiers and associates.”
Until these developments, which included stepped-up U.S. military operations in response to the increasing violence, the number of U.S. casualties had been going down significantly. U.S. military spokesmen attributed the drop-off to better tactics, intelligence, and equipment, like hardening the armor on military Humvees. In Baghdad, the military also reported that the average number of weekly attacks on coalition forces has also dropped dramatically since last November. The major media had displayed little interest in that story.
Most media attention had been focused on the rising number of Iraqi casualties, particularly in the aftermath of the March 2 suicide bombings in Baghdad and Karbala. These attacks took the lives of more than 185 mostly Shiite pilgrims observing Ashura, the most important Shi’a holy day. Ironically, pilgrimages to Shi’a holy sites had been banned during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
The newly formed Iraqi police and army units have also been the targets of suicide bombers. Since last August, the Associated Press reports that there have been at least 19 suicide-bomb attacks in Iraq with six of those targeted against Iraqi police stations. Numbers vary, but estimates of Iraqi policemen killed in these attacks range up to 600.
Who Done It?
The perpetrator of these attacks has been the subject of disputes between official U.S. spokesmen both in Baghdad and Washington and much of the media. Journalists have been skeptical of claims that the bombings are the work of foreign terrorists flowing into the country from Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. A recent Los Angeles Times article by Patrick J. McDonnell and Sebastian Rotella, for example, takes exception to what they write is the “widely held view that Iraq’s suicide bombers are exclusively foreign jihadists.” Other journalists, like the Associated Press’ Jim Krane, have written numerous articles debunking U.S. views on the role of foreign fighters in Iraq.
But coalition officials in Baghdad point to the text of a letter written by al-Zarqawi, the bin Laden associate from Jordan who has been in Iraq since at least May 2002. The letter, released in February, indicates that the targets for suicide bombers have not been picked at random, but as part of a coordinated effort to destabilize Iraq and thwart the transition to democracy. The media have devoted most of their coverage to disputing its authenticity. But one of the liberal media’s favorite academic experts, University of Michigan Professor Juan R.I. Cole, has pronounced the letter genuine and the work of al-Zarqawi.
The Times’ Double-cross
The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins got an advance look at the letter and broke the story on February 9. He wrote that “a reporter” in Baghdad was allowed to see both Arabic and English versions of the letter and was allowed to “write down large portions of the translation.” If coalition officials thought that giving the Times first crack at the story would generate future favorable coverage, they were wrong. After Filkins’ initial article, the Times made only three passing references to the letter over the next few weeks and the editorial page ignored it completely. About three weeks later, the Times finally ran a follow-up piece devoted mostly to debunking the significance of the letter altogether.
Accounts vary as to how the al-Zarqawi letter was acquired. All agree that the letter’s contents were contained on a compact disk found among the possessions of Hassan Ghul, a known al-Qaeda operative. CIA Director George Tenet identified Ghul as a “senior facilitator who was sent to case Iraq for an expanded al-Qaeda presence there.” A Middle East news service reported that Ghul, reported variously as a Pakistani or Egyptian, once reported to Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the reputed 9/11 mastermind who was captured in Pakistan last year.
Filkins quoted a “senior U.S. intelligence official in Washington” as telling him that the “letter was seized in a raid on an al- Qaeda safe house in Baghdad.” The official emphasized that the letter did not come from Iraqi groups that U.S. intelligence officials charged have provided unreliable information in the past.
But Time magazine reported that, in fact, the Kurds had arrested Ghul in Northern Iraq trying to get across the border into Iran in January. Coalition officials in Baghdad seemed to confirm that. General Mark Kimmett, Deputy Director of Coalition Operations, told reporters on February 12 that “the letter was provided to us as part of the capture of a known al-Qaeda courier that happened in mid-January.” A London Arabic daily, Al-Hayat, speculated that suicide bombings of Kurdish party headquarters in Northern Iraq in February were revenge for the Kurds’ capture of Ghul.
Al Zarqawi has been in and out of Iraq since May 2002 after he was run out of Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Al Zarqawi first went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. The AP reports that he returned to Jordan in 1992 and was imprisoned there until 1997 for anti-government activities and plotting attacks on foreigners in Jordan. He returned to Afghanistan in 1999, one step ahead of Jordanian authorities that charged him with planning a millennium poison gas attack on U.S. and Israeli tourists. He is reported to have passed through Iran, before finally arriving in Baghdad where he was treated for wounds suffered in Afghanistan.
A coalition-supplied biography of al-Zarqawi charges that he now runs a terrorist network that reaches throughout the Middle East and into Southeast Asia and Europe. He is accused of planning the November 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. One of the earliest recorded suicide bombings in Iraq took place last August 7 when a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian Embassy; 19 were killed, including two children.
In his February 2003 presentation to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that once inside Iraq al-Zarqawi had set up a poison and explosives training center in Northern Iraq. Powell identified al-Zarqawi as an expert in the production of ricin and other poisons. Powell also said that “nearly two dozen extremists” had established a base of operations in Baghdad during al-Zarqawi’s stay there.
Powell and others link al-Zarqawi to Ansar al-Islam. Jane’s International Security News reports that Ansar al-Islam was formed in northeastern Iraq after 9/11. In March 2003, coalition forces attacked the group’s main enclave killing nearly 200 fighters and scattering the rest across the Iranian border. The group has since reconstituted and is believed responsible for terrorist operations in northern Iraq and Baghdad.
Al-Zarqawi addressed the letter to “the men on the mountaintops, to the hawks of glory, to the lions of Shara [Mountains], to the two honorable brothers?” Terrorism experts say this is a clear reference to al Qaeda’s top leadership, Osama bin Laden and his chief deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Time Not On His Side
One thing is clear from the letter: al-Zarqawi seems to believe that time is running short in his campaign to disrupt and prevent the transition to democracy in Iraq. He writes in the letter that the Americans are “easy targets,” but predicts that the U.S. will stay the course in Iraq:
“There is no doubt that the American losses are very heavy because they are deployed across a wide area and among the people and because it is easy to procure weapons, all of which makes them easy and mouthwatering targets for the believers. But America did not come to leave, and it will not leave no matter how numerous its wounds become and how much of its blood is spilled.”
Al Zarqawi clearly fears the growth and evolution of Iraqi police and army units as the transition of power in Iraq unfolds:
“There is no doubt that the space in which we can move has begun to shrink and that the grip around the threats of the mujahidin has begun to tighten. With the deployment of [Iraqi] soldiers and police, the future has become frightening.”
He also complains that Iraq’s geography makes widespread terrorist operations more difficult:
“What prevents us from a general alert is that the country has no mountains in which we can take refuge and no forests in whose thickets we can hide. Our backs are exposed and our movements compromised. Eyes are every-where. The enemy is before us and the sea is behind us.”
His assessment of Iraqis as potential guerilla fighters and terrorists is also gloomy. The Sunni population, he writes, are “more wretched than orphans at the tables of the depraved.” As for the “masses,” they “are the silent majority, absent even though present.” He devotes one section to the Iraqi “Mujahidin,” possibly a reference to some combination of the Saddam Fedayeen, former Baathist loyalists, and former Iraqi intelligence and military officers. He writes that most “have little expertise or experience” and that they work “in isolation, with no political horizon, farsightedness, or preparation to inherit the land.” He laments that this group seems to have little stomach for so-called martyr operations:
“Jihad here unfortunately [takes the form of] mines planted, rockets launched, and mortars shelling from afar. The Iraqi brothers still prefer safety and returning to the arms of their wives, where nothing frightens them.?We have told them in our many sessions with them that safety and victory are incompatible, that the tree of triumph and empowerment cannot grow tall and lofty without blood and defiance of death, that the [Islamic] nation cannot live without the aroma of martyrdom and the perfume of fragrant blood spilled on behalf of God, and that people cannot awaken from their stupor unless talk of martyrdom and martyrs fills their days and nights.”
In his section on foreign jihadists, the “Immigrant Mujahidin,” he admits, “their numbers continue to be negligible as compared to the enormity of the expected battle.” In addition to terrain unfavorable for jihad operations, he writes that while the locals are willing to offer shelter to foreign fighters, they are unwilling to make their homes available as a “a base for launching [operations] and a place of movement and battle.” This, he writes, is “rarer than red sulphur.”
Despite these difficulties (“the paucity of supporters, the desertion of friends, and the toughness of the times”), he claims some success. He brags that he has completed 25 martyrdom operations, against the “Shi’a and their symbolic figures, the Americans and their soldiers, the police and soldiers, and the coalition forces.” “More are to come,” he writes.
Hopes For Sectarian Strife
As for the future, al-Zarqawi pinned his hopes for success on dragging the Shi’a into a sectarian war. Much of the document is taken up with a screed against the Shi’a. The key to success, he wrote, is “to drag the Shi’a into the battle because this is the only way to prolong the fighting between us and the infidels. We say that we must drag them into battle for several reasons, which are: They have declared a secret war against the people of Islam?The danger from the Shi’a, however, is greater and their damage is worse and more destructive to the [Islamic] nation than the Americans? They have befriended and supported the Americans and stood in their ranks against the mujahidin.”?Our fighting against the Shi’a is the way to drag the [Islamic] nation into the battle.”
CIA Director George J. Tenet said al-Zarqawi and foreign jihadists hope for a Taliban-like enclave in Iraq’s Sunni heartland that could be a jihadist safe haven.” Al-Zarqawi writes about the Sunni Triangle as “the base from which we set out and to which we return.” He worries about the formation and deployment of Iraqi army and police units in the area which “are growing stronger day by day.” He sees only two outcomes if battle is limited to this region:
“1. We fight them, and this is difficult because of the gap that will emerge between us and the people of the land. How can we fight their cousins and their sons and under what pretext after the Americans, who hold the reins of power from their rear bases, pull back? The real sons of this land will decide the matter through experience. Democracy is coming, and there will be no excuse thereafter.
2. We pack our bags and search for another land, as is the sad, recurrent story in the arenas of jihad, because our enemy is growing stronger and his intelligence data are increasing day by day. ? [This] is suffocation and then wearing down the roads.”
His letter promises stepped-up attacks on the Shi’a, Iraqi police and army units, and the Americans. “As for the Shi’a, we will hurt them, God willing, through martyrdom operations and car bombs.” “We are racing against time,” he writes, and hopes that his forces will “appear in the open, control the land at night, and extend it into daylight.” “Zero hour,” he writes, “will come four months or so before the promised government if formed.” That is likely a reference to the July 1 handover of power. Since the letter was probably written sometime before the first of the year, it appears that al-Zarqawi’s timetable is already behind schedule.
If he and his forces lose, “we will have to pack our bags and break camp for another land in which we can resume carrying the banner or in which God will choose us as martyrs for his sake.” In an appeal to al Qaeda, he says:
“You, gracious brothers, are the leaders, guides and symbolic figures of jihad and battle. We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you, and we have never striven to achieve glory for ourselves. All that we hope is that we will be the spearhead, the enabling vanguard, and the bridge on which the [Islamic] nation crosses over to the victory that is promised and the tomorrow to which we aspire. This is our vision and we have explained it. This is our path and we have made it clear. If you agree with us on it, if you adopt it as a program and road, and if you are convinced of the idea of fighting the sects of apostasy, we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner, complying with your orders, and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media, vexing the infidels and gladdening those who preach the oneness of God. On that day, the believers will rejoice in God’s victory. If things appear otherwise to you, we are brothers, and the disagreement will not spoil [our] friendship. [This is] a cause [in which] we are cooperating for the good and supporting jihad. Awaiting your response?”
Coalition authorities have announced a $10-million reward for information leading to Zarqawi’s capture.
In the April/May 2004 issue of The American Enterprise magazine, Karl Zinsmeister cites the al-Zarqawi letter, saying “it is Iraq’s insurgents who are facing physical and psychological defeat.”
Zinsmeister concludes that if Americans back home continue “celebrating the accomplishments of our sons and daughters by cherishing their sacrifices on our mantels, and multiplying and extending their courage by refusing to abandon the struggle they are waging?then this is a fight America will certainly win.”