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Zarqawiâ€TMs Role in Iraq at Odds with White House Claims

by Chris Shumway

The focus of the US and Iraqi governments on one of the many misunderstood figures in the current conflict, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, whose Al-Qaeda links appear weak, may be another error.

July 15, 2004 – According to several military analysts working both inside and outside of government, the Bush administration’s oft-repeated claim that militant leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi is the direct link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein does not ring true.

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Al- Zarqawi, a Jordanian who heads a group that reportedly claimed responsibility Tuesday for killing a Bulgarian worker held captive in Iraq, appears to be one of many leaders within the decentralized, global Islamic extremist movement. The various groups often work in competition with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network for recruits and funding.

The analysts also suggest that, contrary to other Bush administration assertions, Al-Zarqawi’s religious beliefs, combat tactics and operational goals were never consistent with Hussein’s, nor are they in accord with those of most Iraqis currently fighting against the ongoing US-led military occupation.

Ties to Al-Qaeda Questioned

Speaking Monday in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Bush once again suggested that the rigidly Islamic fundamentalist Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s secular Ba’athist regime had an operational relationship. When asked about the president’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan specifically referred to Al-Zarqawi as the link between the two, calling him a "senior al-Qaeda" member in Iraq. Again on Wednesday, the president said Al-Zarqawi "gets instructions from Al-Qaeda."

However, a "high-ranking US military official" anonymously told Agence France-Presse, "Saddam did not have any love for non-Iraqi Arabs... We have found no evidence he cooperated with Zarqawi himself."

Knight Ridder reports that US intelligence officials refer to Al-Zarqawi as more of a distant associate of Al-Qaeda who may share some of its goals, but does not receive orders and funding from bin Laden.

Jason Burke, a British journalist and author of the recent book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, goes further in disputing Bush’s claims.

Citing reports by German intelligence officials, who investigated a terrorist cell organized by Al-Zarqawi there in the late 1990s, Burke argues that Al-Zarqawi is not an Al-Qaeda leader or even a sworn member -- nor was he in any way a compatriot of Saddam.

"Al-Zarqawi is not an Al-Qaeda operative," Burke emphatically wrote in the UK paper The Observer in March. "If there is a link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein he is not it."

Burke acknowledges that Al-Zarqawi, like bin Laden and many other young Muslim men, journeyed to Afghanistan in the 1980s to join the US-funded fight against the Soviet Union’s occupation of that country. But Burke contends that Al-Zarqawi led a group of Jordanian fighters separate from bin Laden’s mujahideen group.

In the late 1990s, Al-Zarqawi began organizing his Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad (monotheism and holy struggle) network at a training camp in western Afghanistan, Burke reports, while bin Laden was running Al-Qaeda from a base in another part of the country. Both groups are now just two of many independent networks working within a growing, decentralized militant Islamic movement consisting of small cells of extremists all over the globe.

As evidence of a strong collaboration between Al-Zarqawi and the Al-Qaeda organization, the Bush administration has often cited a lengthy letter reportedly written by Al-Zarqawi to Al-Qaeda leaders and intercepted by US forces in Iraq last February. The contents of the letter request assistance from Al-Qaeda in a plan to drag Iraq into a bloody civil war that, the writer argues, would pave the way for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state.

But there is little hard evidence that shows Al-Zarqawi was actually the writer of the letter or that he would have presented such an elaborate strategy even if he had been the author.

In a profile of Al-Zarqawi published Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Khalid Abu Doma, a man who served time with Al-Zarqawi in a Jordanian prison in the 1990s, referred to Al-Zarqawi as "basically illiterate." Doma and others who knew Al-Zarqawi well suggest it would have been nearly impossible for him to compose a 6,000-word letter containing elaborate political analysis and detailed historical references, the Times reports.

Aside from questions about Al-Zarqawi’s writing ability, other analysts point out that Al-Qaeda rebuffed the request for help, suggesting that whoever wrote the letter was of little importance to the organization, according to a Knight Ridder report.

Al-Zarqawi’s Iraq Mission

The profile in the Times may have also exposed as myth an event often cited by the Bush and other war supporters as proof that Al-Zarqawi had a close relationship with Saddam’s regime.

While making his case for the invasion of Iraq during a 2002 speech, the president referred to a widely-circulated story that Al-Zarqawi, who had reportedly been wounded during a US attack on his camp in Afghanistan, went to Baghdad to have a leg amputated. "A very senior Al-Qaeda leader... received medical treatment in Baghdad this year," Bush said.

But according to a "senior US military official" quoted by the Times, the story of Al-Zarqawi’s amputation was not based in fact. "We believe Zarqawi has both legs," the official said, "and reporting of the missing limb was disinformation."

In addition to repeating dubious claims about Al-Zarqawi’s past, the Bush administration has more recently declared the Jordanian militant to be public enemy number one in Iraq, suggesting Al-Zarqawi is among the primary leaders of the Iraqi resistance. Last week, US military officials raised the reward for information leading to Zarqawi’s arrest from $10 million to $25 million.

AFP reports that, according to their anonymous military source, Zarqawi’s network is expanding in Iraq. The official told the French news service that Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad’s ranks have swelled in recent months to anywhere from 500 to 1,000 men. Some of the men are foreign fighters like Al-Zarqawi, according to the official, while others are Iraqis affiliated with Ansar Al-Islam, an anti-Saddam extremist group based in the Kurdish region with whom Al-Zarqawi is also said to have connections.

According to Michael Ware, an Australian journalist working for Time magazine, Al-Zarqawi is also attracting more money from groups and individuals who finance Islamic fundamentalist terror activities. This is partly due, Ware contends, to Al-Zarqawi’s ability to organize spectacular car bombing attacks and high profile kidnappings, along with his effectiveness at demonstrating to the world, through videotaped beheadings such as that purportedly showing the execution of American contractor Nicholas Berg, that he is unwavering in his commitment to waging a holy war against the West and its influences.

"The jihad money market... it’s like a free market," Ware said in an interview July 1 on Australian television. "The money ebbs and flows, it follows trends, it follows personalities. Some time ago, Chechnya was hot, then Afghanistan was hot... Now Iraq is the hottest of the hot, and Al-Zarqawi is here."

Ironically, according to Ware, another factor driving Al-Zarqawi’s growing popularity among Islamic extremists is the substantial attention currently being paid to him by the Bush administration, as well as Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq in the first place.

Despite the recent expansion of his network, Zarqawi and his forces may actually be relatively minor players in Iraq, often working at cross purposes with the majority of Iraqi groups resisting the ongoing US military occupation, according to an Associated Press report.

Will the Real Insurgents Please Stand Up?

US military officials and internal military documents obtained by the AP indicate that the active resistance consists mainly of Sunni Muslims, Ba’athists -- many with experience in Saddam’s army -- and tribal men who are fighting for a bigger role for their group in a new, secular Iraqi society. Although they may be influenced by Islam the way some American soldiers say they are influenced by Christianity, they are not, the report suggests, fighting for a Taliban-like, Islamic state as Al-Zarqawi’s fighters appear to be.

Some analysts have even suggested that recent car bombings blamed on Al-Zarqawi were actually carried out by Iraqi resistance fighters, the AP reports. According to one official, the attacks, which were aimed at Iraq’s new security forces, bore the "tradecraft" of Saddam’s former secret police.

Such statements are at odds with the Bush administration’s claim that US-led troops in Iraq are fighting part of the "war on terror" against foreign-led, Islamic extremists.

"Too much US analysis is fixated on terms like ‘jihadist’," Anthony Cordesman told the AP, "just as it almost mindlessly tries to tie everything to bin Laden." Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a privately funded, establishment think tank, says the resistance has a distinctly nationalist character.

US military officials also told the AP that guerilla leaders in Iraq could mobilize as many as 20,000 fighters, a number many times greater than that of Al-Zarqawi’s forces. The resistance also has enough popular support among nationalist Iraqis angered at the ongoing US military occupation that they could not be defeated solely by military means, according to the report.

Some Iraqi resistance groups have also recently spoken out publicly against Al-Zarqawi and his fighters, saying they do not approve of his tactics, especially the beheadings and car bombings that kill civilians, as well as the presence of his foreign fighters in their country, according to the New York Times.

Sheik Abdul-Satar Al-Samarri, a leader of the influential Muslim Clerics Association, a Sunni group critical of Al-Zarqawi, told the Times that his opposition to the Jordanian fighter’s tactics did not mean he thought the Iraqis should stop fighting against the US-led occupation of their country.

Instead, Al-Samarri advocated an alternative to Al-Zarqawi’s brand of warfare. "Honest and true resistance -- that is away from chaos, killing innocents and policemen and sabotaging infrastructure -- should go on to kick the occupation out of the country."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Chris Shumway is a contributing journalist.

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