Such is the US’s sense of uncertainty in Iraq that they have not even been sure how to respond to persistent rumours that Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-proclaimed “Leader of Al-Qa’ida inIraq” has been wounded in action and may even have died. The rumours began circulating in early May, and were given credibility on May 26 when a website linked to the resistance inIraq appealed for Muslims to pray for him. The same website later denied reports that another resistance field commander, Abu Hafs al-Qarni, has been appointed head of the group until al-Zarqawi recovers.
Although Iraqi government officials claimed to have independent confirmation that al-Zarqawi had been injured, claiming it as a success in their war against “terrorism”, US officials denied this, apparently afraid of a possible up-surge in resistance activity if the reports were widely believed. That in itself is an indication of the widespread popularity of the resistance among Iraqi people, and disproves US claims that the continuing resistance is almost totally the work of a small band of foreign mujahideen linked to al-Qa’ida and other international terrorist groups.
The truth is, of course, very different. There is ample evidence that the bulk of the resistance is made up of local Iraqis, mainly from the Sunni community, but also from other communities. The role of non-Iraqi mujahideen, although it is significant, is certainly secondary. It is also the case that the non-Iraqi mujahideen, far from being linked to any outside group, are mainly committed Muslims from neighbouring countries who are willing to support their Iraqis brothers and sisters against the invasion by the “world’s sole superpower”.
Such mujahideen have supported the causes of Muslims in almost all the many parts of the world where Muslims have had to fight to defend themselves in recent years, including Bosnia-Herzogovina, Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan. While some may share the salafi/jihadi outlook associated with Usama bin Ladin, there are unlikely to be formal links. It is far more likely that people like al-Zarqawi have unilaterally adopted the label of al-Qa’ida as a tribute to bin Ladin, while bin Ladin is happy to accept their informal affiliation as a recognition of the legitimacy of their cause. For its part, of course, the US welcomes such associations as confirmation of their claims to be confronting an organized, powerful, global enemy rather than a loose, informal network of committed Muslims.
If it is true that al-Zarqawi has been injured, it almost certainly happened during fierce fighting between US troops and resistance forces in the west of the country, near the Syrian border. This is a relatively remote and sparsely populated area where resistance groups have established bases as US forces have gradually asserted control of the towns and cities of the more heavily populated areas of the country. US forces launched a major offensive in this area, which they refer to as Iraq’s ‘Wild West’, early in May, in response to an upsurge of resistance operations in April (see Crescent International, May 2005).
However, the fact that the resistance bases have been under attack has not prevented a continued escalation of resistance activity, particularly in the centre and north of the country, in which about 600 people, mainly members of the Iraqi security forces, have been killed. The most intense resistance operations have taken place in Baghdad, Tikrit and the town ofHawija, near Kirkuk. Western journalists have reported that the road between Baghdad and the airport is so insecure that several attacks on US or government vehicles occur every day on it.
On May 27, Iraqi officials responded to the embarrassing ease with which resistance fighters can operate in their capital by announcing new plans for the security of the city, including dividing Baghdad into seven security zones, and the deployment of 40,000 more troops. New defence minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said that the troops would “impose a concrete blockade around Baghdad, insha’Allah.”
But few in Iraq believe that the US-controlled government in Baghdad, and its forces, are really capable of that, even with US help.