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Al Qaeda's hand in tipping Iraq toward civil war

Creating chaos in Iraq serves Al Qaeda's goal of uniting the Muslim world under one caliph.

By Abdel Bari Atwan / March 20, 2006



LONDON

The Feb. 22 bombing of the golden mosque in Samarra - considered one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines - triggered the unprecedented levels of sectarian violence currently under way in Iraq. The hand behind this strike at the Shiite majority in all probability points to Al Qaeda, intent on fomenting the low-level civil strife that has churned for months into something far greater.

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A full-out civil war in Iraq would strengthen Al Qaeda's growing reach in Iraq. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in this Land of the Two Rivers, has long expressed a vitriolic hatred for the "heretic and atheist" Shiites, the "secret allies of the Americans." In a June 15, 2004, letter to Osama bin Laden, Mr. Zarqawi described Shiites as "a sect of treachery and betrayal through the ages."

He had earlier claimed responsibility for the assassination of Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim in August 2003. And his expressed hatred for the Shiites leads me to believe he was also behind the March 2, 2004, massacre of 185 Shiite pilgrims in Karbala and Baghdad and a string of other attacks on Shiite civilians. Studying this pattern of aggression reveals that Zarqawi's strategy to create such internal chaos to the detriment of US troops and the Iraqi military is indeed being carried out.

Thus it is highly likely that Zarqawi's group carried out the bombing of the golden mosque in Samarra last month. The Shiite majority, who have most to gain from maintaining stability in Iraq, have to this point exercised some restraint in retaliating against attacks on their members, but the destruction of one of their most sacred shrines unleashed a wave of reprisals and summary executions that has already resulted in hundreds (if not thousands) of Sunni and Shiite deaths.

In a letter to Zarqawi dated June 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. bin Laden's deputy, questioned whether targeting Shiite civilians might alienate the more moderate Sunni element from Al Qaeda. Zarqawi, however, disregarded such concerns, reasoning that in the event of the all-out civil war he hopes for, moderate and radical differences will disappear - a prognosis that may well prove gruesomely correct.

Zarqawi's rationale is threefold: Civil war in Iraq will undermine the current political process by preventing the engagement of Sunni factions and unseating the Shiite leaders; it will render the country ungovernable and ensure the failure of the United States project in the region; finally, an expanded conflict would draw on the huge reserves of Sunni Muslim military support available in neighboring countries - either on a national level or in terms of individual mujahideen pouring into Iraq to protect fellow Sunnis from annihilation at the hands of Iran-backed Shiite militia.

Sectarian civil strife could rapidly spread throughout the region. Many Sunni leaders are already unnerved by the growing influence of Shiite Iran in Iraqi internal affairs, and sectarian tensions have been brewing in several countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Civil war in Iraq may well prompt the Kurds to declare independence, drawing Turkey into the arena.

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