Zarqawi is everywhere, and he is responsible for everything.
That’s what an unwary reader might conclude from news coverage over the last several weeks.
“Abu Musab Zarqawi blamed for more than 700 killings in Iraq” (NBC News, 03/03/04).
“Zarqawi has warned of attacks on the majority Shia population with the aim of provoking a Sunni-Shia civil war to wreck the US plans to pull out of Iraq on 30 June” (Independent of London 03/03/04).
“Gen. John P. Abizaid said raids by American Special Operations forces and efforts by the Iraqi police against militants associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had thwarted a major attack in Basra” (New York Times 03/03/04).
“There is growing evidence that a terrorist [Zarqawi] with ties to al Qaeda was behind this week’s bombing in Iraq” (Christian Broadcasting Network 03/04/04).
“Every soldier in Iraq is looking for Zarqawi,” says Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt (Houston Chronicle 02/22/04).
You generally have to get well into these articles to find any qualification of these bold claims. But the disclaimers are puzzlingly blunt given the flamboyant prose that precedes them.
Under the headline, “New leading terrorist a master of disguises, thought to be recruiting for al-Qaida,” the Knight-Ridder papers eventually note the following: “So far, coalition officials have presented little hard evidence to back their allegations,” and “So far, little evidence has been produced regarding Zarqawi’s activities, so it is not clear how firm the allegations are,” (Houston Chronicle, 02/22/04).
In a curious construal, the Independent says about the supposed Zarqawi communiqué, “While it is still not known whether the memo is a fake, its predictions look as though they are coming true.”
And the redoubtable New York Times quotes a “senior American official” as saying: “that he knew of no direct evidence linking Mr. Zarqawi to Tuesday’s attacks. ‘That doesn’t mean it’s not what we expect to find,’ the official said” (New York Times 03/04/04).
Much of this latest furor results from the US announcing in early February that it had intercepted a letter from Abu Musab al Zarqawi to al Qaeda seeking its cooperation in fomenting civil war in Iraq. In a previous article on the CounterPunch website (“The Zarqawi Gambit,” 02/26/04), I listed reasons for a healthy agnosticism about allegations concerning Zarqawi, al Qaeda, and the supposed attempt to foment civil war in Iraq.
The first was that the alleged Zarqawi letter could not have been more congenial to the Bush Administration if it had been composed by Karl Rove. Invoking the spectre of the universally-loathed al-Qaeda, it supported the interpretation that all of our troubles in Iraq are caused by outside agitators, not the Iraqis themselves. The inference is that violence in Iraq is not part of a war of national liberation, not a structural matter that will impede the flowering of American-style democracy, but by agitation that will pass when we get our hands on Saddam Hussein . . . or, I should say, Zarqawi. The second reason for skepticism was that the communiqué was made public when “American officials” revealed it exclusively to the New York Times. Like many other government specials to the Times, the only source cited was “senior government officials.” There was no attempt to consult non-government intelligence experts, authorities on Al Qaeda, authorities on terrorist activities, or scholars on the Middle East to explore any causes for skepticism. Rather, the Times continued its habit of running with whatever the U.S. government says. This has been characteristic of other government “exclusives” to Times reporters that have proven to be false.
The third reason for skepticism, not to belabor the obvious, is that the Bush administration has lied about intelligence on Iraq before. Remember the mobile weapons labs, the Wagons of Mass Destruction? Remember the Scuds lurking in secret locations in the desert? Remember the remote controlled drones, poised to spew death from Poughkeepsie to Pomona?
Since the Times broke the Zarqawi story on February 9, spawning columns by William Safire and David Brooks and Jim Hoagland and countless speculative articles about Zarqawi’s evil activities, as well as multiple CPA press conferences, what additional documentation of the authenticity of the Zarkawi letter has been produced? What third parties have examined the compact disc upon which the letter resided? What articles have appeared about Arabists examining the text to see if the US translation is reasonable? To see if the language is consistent with what one would expect of a Jordanian like Zarqawi, and with other communications attributed to him? To my knowledge, the answer to these questions is “none.”
On the other hand, there are additional causes to be skeptical of the document’s authenticity. In the original story (02/09/04) American officials claimed the letter “was seized in a raid on a known Qaeda safe house in Baghdad.” However, in his column of February 11, William Safire says that the courier was captured by Kurdish Pesh Merga in Kalar, a town about a hundred miles from Baghdad. This appears to have become the preferred version, since the Knight-Ridder papers report on February 22 that the letter was found on a courier captured in northern Iraq. Where and how “US officials” acquired the Zarqawi letter should be straightforward, particularly when they deem it important enough for a special to the Times. So why the confusion over such a simple thing?
We should also be skeptical about the recurring claim that resistance in Iraq originates outside the country. We have heard this story before, but always without substantiation. After the Saddam Hussein regime fell and mortality rates among American soldiers began to climb, high military and defense officials asserted that foreign terrorists were streaming into Iraq across Syrian borders. How inconvenient it was for them when the commanders in charge of patrolling those borders said there was no evidence to support such claims (“Commanders Doubt Syria is Entry Point,” Washington Post, 10/29/03).
When insurgents overran a police station in Fallujah, killing fifteen to twenty Iraqi policemen, the Coalition Provisional Authority initially reported confidently that the attack was carried out by foreigners. The next day they admitted that actual evidence proved the attackers were Iraqis.
Similarly, American and Iraqi officials have been eager to link the Ashura bombings in Karbala and Baghdad to Zarqawi and to “traveling jihadists” (Christian Broadcasting network). The authorities reported taking fifteen Iranians into custody. Of course, there was no shortage of them in the area. Iranians are almost all Shiai, and Ashura is the holiest day in the Shia religious calendar. An estimated 100,000 Iranians traveled to Karbala for the observance. The theory is that foreigners want to attack the Shiai to foment civil war. But it is not likely that Iranians, themselves devout Shiai, would make such an attack.
Robert Fisk is particularly cogent on the issue of outside agitators:
“Repeatedly the Americans have told us that the suicide bombers were ‘foreigners.’ And so they may be. But can we have some identities, nationalities? The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has talked of the hundreds of ‘foreign’ fighters crossing Saudi Arabia’s porous borders. The US press have dutifully repeated this. The Iraqi police keep announcing that they have found the bombers’ passports, so can we have the numbers?” (Independent, 03/03/04)
If Zarqawi is in Iraq, how difficult can it be to find him? He is, after all, an amputee. Even an amputee with a prosthetic leg tends to stand out in a crowd. With any support from the natives, a CPA investigator who said “I’m looking for a one-legged Jordanian” would have a fair chance of generating some leads.
And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? It is not so difficult to believe that there are jihadis in Iraq. But the suggestion set out in the alleged Zarqawi letter and embroidered by “US officials” strikes me as preposterous. This is the suggestion that insurrection is a matter of foreign agitation, not of conditions endemic to Iraq. A one-legged foreigner cannot foment rebellion and elude US capture without substantial Iraqi support. An operation as sophisticated as the Ashura attacks cannot be carried out without active involvement from a cadre of Iraqis, and complicity by other Iraqis in fairly large numbers. Such activity should leave a trail in Iraqi society a mile wide . . . unless, of course, a substantial number of Iraqis are working to cover it. The whole affair has a peculiar odor. To quote Robert Fisk again: “Civil war. Somehow I don’t believe it . . . an occupation authority which should regard civil war as the last prospect it ever wants to contemplate keeps shouting ‘civil war’ in our ears and I worry about that.”
Thanks to Michael Christiansen for bringing the inconsistencty about the intercept of the alleged Zarqawi letter to my attention.
GREG WEIHER is a political scientist and free-lance writer living in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.