The Rings on Zarqawi's Finger

“I am a ring on your finger.” — Al Qaeda in Iraq member Abu Anas to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi
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Since Abu Musab Al Zarqawi formed the Al Qaeda in Iraq franchise, the terrorist group that destroyed the World Trade Center has fought American soldiers and what they call the near enemy, fellow Muslims, instead of civilians in the homeland of the far enemy, the United States. This may be good for Americans, but it has been a catastrophe for Iraqis — especially in Baghdad, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
I had lunch with several Iraqi Police officers and spoke to them afterward about this searing conflict that raged for years in their city and that only quieted down a few months ago. Trauma and war are still fresh, enough so that they don’t want me to publish their names or their pictures. Nor do they want me to identify their police station. So I’ll just say they work somewhere in the vicinity of Fallujah. And I’ll call them Omar, Mohammed, Ahmed, and Mahmoud — generic Arabic names which are pseudonyms.
“What did you think of the Americans a few years ago when they first got here?” I said.
“The United States made a big mistake when they invaded Iraq,” Omar said. “They destroyed the Iraqi Army. They destroyed the whole army when they invaded. They lost their right hand against the insurgents. They lost a good partner that could have really helped in the future. In the beginning if they had just kept the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police, somebody would have been backing them.”
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Iraqi Police officers other than those featured in this article
“Do you think invading Iraq was the right decision, or was it a mistake?” I said.
“It was a surprise invasion for both the Americans and the Iraqis,” he said. “They had no ability to analyze the actions they were taking. Neither the Iraqis nor the Americans could understand what was going on. All the casualties during the invasion were Americans and Iraqis. None were the third party. We were both losers. If we had just started with political methods to accomplish the mission, it would have been far better than the military action. As a result, the Iraqi people and the American people were losers.”
I snapped some pictures of the Iraqis.
“He’s a journalist?” Omar said to Tom, our interpreter.
“Yes,” Tom said.
“We are not authorized to talk to journalists about politics,” Ahmed said and glared at Omar, who had just given me some opinions about politics.
I knew what Ahmed meant. They have to stay in their lane, as American soldiers and Marines would say. The Americans in Iraq aren’t supposed to talk to journalists about politics either, unless they are talking about local politics they’re involved with as part of their job. Talking above their pay grade on the record isn’t allowed — although sometimes they do so off the record. Privates can talk about their basic job as a private — which is why I rarely quote privates. Most are reluctant to say anything to me whatsoever. Sergeants can speak about platoon-level issues. Lieutenants and captains can get into the nuts and bolts of local politics because they deal with it constantly. “But I can’t talk about why President Bush invaded Iraq,” one high-ranking officer said.
They have to be careful when they talk about politics even indirectly. One mid-level officer, whom I shouldn’t name so I won’t get him in trouble, strongly recommended that I read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. “Especially make sure you read the chapter called How to Create an Insurgency,” he said. “Ricks gets it exactly right in that chapter. But you can’t quote me by name saying that because it’s another way of saying the insurgency is Paul Bremer’s fault. And Bremer outranks me.”
Talking above their pay grade isn’t the only thing the Iraqi Police officer I call Ahmed was concerned with. “The Iraqi Police in this area are considered enemies by some people because we work with the Americans against the insurgents,” he said. “So we don’t want our pictures to be shown in any newspapers.”
“Does everyone here at this table want me to refrain from publishing their picture?” I said. Lots of Iraqi Police officers want me to publish their picture. But some ask me not to, and a smaller number are so worried about it that they won’t let me take their picture at all.
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Everyone at the table nodded. None wanted their photographs published.
“They are a little bit scared, you know,” Tom said. “Their pictures might be seen in this country.”
“Tell them if they don’t want me to publish their pictures, I won’t publish their pictures,” I said to Tom. “It isn’t a problem.”
Tom is a 60 year old Palestinian who lives in Jordan, and his real name isn’t Tom. He, like all the other interpreters I’ve met in Iraq, goes by an American name to conceal his identity. There is a chance he could be hunted down by terrorists and murdered in Jordan if he could be traced.
He invited me to have coffee with him in his room back at the station. Of course I accepted. We discussed Middle Eastern politics and his job with Americans.
“I love the Marines,” he said. “They are like my second family.”
I got a kick out of his coffee cup.
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“Where did you get that cup?” I said.
“Do you want it?” he said.
“That’s not what I said, Tom,” I said.
But he would not let me leave his room until I accepted his gift. I would not have expected a Palestinian to purchase anything with such gung-ho American military imagery, but Iraq is full of surprises.
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I almost thought better of it, but I had to ask: “Have you ever been to Israel, Tom?”
“Yes!” he said, beaming. “It is my country. It is beautiful. I have family there. The first time I went to Israel, after the 1967 war, I was afraid the Jews might eat my flesh. But they were so nice to me in Haifa. They welcomed me into their homes even though I am Palestinian. We hated them, you know, after all that had happened. But I was welcome as a Palestinian. The Jews are good people. Like you.”
For all the hatred in the Middle East, there is also forgiveness, and moderation. Where are the moderate Muslims? ask many Americans. I find the question bizarre. I meet them every day in Iraq, and everywhere else in the Middle East, too. The problem is they have a hard time getting attention in newspapers and magazines that wallow in sensationalism.
“What happened before, happened,” said Omar, returning to the discussion of the American invasion with the Iraqi Police. “One mistake was committed, but it’s gone. Let’s just close it and not keep analyzing the same problem again. According to our analysis, American troops are now here to help
Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha made similar points, a bit more eloquently, to Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami: “Our American friends had not understood us when they came. They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.”
“We have promised to work with the Americans against Al Qaeda,” Ahmed continued. “And that’s it. That is all we are allowed to say about politics. But I can say that I feel the sincerity in the American support for the Iraqi civilians here. I am not going to say any bad words about Americans. I can feel that they really are eager to accomplish that mission.”
“How did you learn this about Americans?” I said.
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“Americans aren’t here to help Iraqi civilians, actually,” he said. “They are here to fight the Al Qaeda organization. Iraqis are very kind people, you know? They are in love with everybody in the whole world. So if you offer them help, they will appreciate it. Some Iraqis spread the word that Americans are trying to kill them, so the Al Qaeda organization gets some people to help them. They get some manpower on their side. Some Iraqis started working with the Al Qaeda organization because of this. I appreciate any kind of help and assistance given to Sunni and Islamic people here from the United States so we can fight for our rights in the political sphere and Iraqi social life. Sunnis are now considered second class citizens in this society, not first class citizens. We need someone to back us up. For example, right now I cannot go to Baghdad. They are Shias. So this is a matter of politics.”
“Can you describe what Al Qaeda did here?” I said.
“The Al Qaeda organization is the enemy of Iraqis and of Americans,” Mahmoud said. “We are Muslims. Sunnis. Al Qaeda came through Islam and used it to enter Iraqi lands. They are killers, insurgents, they don’t respect humanity. They don’t belong to Islam or have religious beliefs. They have no kind of religious beliefs.”
Don’t assume Mahmoud is dissembling when he says this. It may appear that some Muslims are being overly defensive by saying Osama bin Laden is not a real Muslim, but there is a solid case to be made that radical Islamism is, in fact, a totalitarian cult unhinged from the religion as it is actually practiced by the majority. It is they, after all, who blow up mosques in Iraq. I know of at least one mosque in Ramadi that is considered “blackened” because insurgents used it as a base. No one will set foot in it now.
Shia mosques are not the only Islamic houses of worship desecrated by the likes of Al Qaeda. Zarqawi had ruthlessly seized control of the Sunni town of Biara in Iraqi Kurdistan before the group he was then attached to — Ansar Al Islam — was pushed into Iran by American Special Forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. “He and his men squatted in the town’s mosque and used the shrine there as a toilet”:
I asked the caretaker of that mosque how he felt about the fact that Americans bombed it to get Ansar Al Islam out. “I don’t know,” he said, as if he had never even pondered the question. “It’s okay, I suppose. I am grateful. If they had not done it this place would still be a toilet.”
Every mosque in the Fallujah area — and there are more than 200 of them — broadcast pro-American messages from minaret loudspeakers. The messages inside the walls are as pro-American as the ones outside. The Marines have fluent Arabic-speakers listening in so they can keep their ears close to the ground of public opinion. If the mosques turn against Americans again, the Marines need to know.
When Mahmoud says Al Qaeda does not belong to Islam, he is not speaking theologically. I’m afraid Al Qaeda does belong to Islam if you look at it that way. But he is right that Al Qaeda does not belong to Islam as it is currently lived by the people in his community.
“In Western Iraq we have been a part of this big game,” Mahmoud said. “The Sunnis here are very simple people, very innocent people. It is easy to win their hearts. Al Qaeda tried to go through the religion to earn their affection. People can get enrolled in those types of Islamic organizations for that reason.”
“The Al Qaeda organization is like a mafia or any other secret organization in the world,” Ahmed said. “If you enroll in that organization, that’s it. You’re gone. Nobody can get you out of that business. You’re lost. It’s a matter of trapping the man after letting him in. Then he’s trapped, he’s lost forever. He cannot go back because the Al Qaeda organization will get him.”
They are not just like a mafia. They are also like a murderous cult.
“The Al Qaeda organization has a core philosophy,” Ahmed continued. “When you join the Al Qaeda organization the first thing you have to do is get your parents far away from your mind. Your father and mother have to be away from your thinking. There can be nothing else. Only the Al Qaeda organization. Your kids, your wife, your family, your parents, your beliefs, all have to be out. Only then can you enroll in the Al Qaeda organization.”
An Al Qaeda member in Fallujah named Abu Anas was punished by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi when he accidentally revealed to a journalist that foreigners came to Fallujah from somewhere else to fight the Americans. Zarqawi placed Anas under house arrest and only released him when he pledged his fealty not to Islam or God, but to Zarqawi himself. ““I am a ring on your finger,” he said”:
Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi
“If an Al Qaeda officer gives you an order to kill your father,” Ahmed continued, “you have to do it. Your father, your mother, your neighbor, no matter who it might be. It’s a simple way to get anybody killed — American, Iraqi, any civilian, any local, anyone. It’s a matter of ideological indoctrination from the organization itself.”
According to the conventional narrative, Al Qaeda was rejected by Iraqis because they murdered Iraqis. They were far more vicious and hateful than the Americans they vowed to expel. The narrative is correct, as far as it goes, but Al Qaeda is detested for more than mere thuggery. Other armed groups have been able to maintain at least some popularity even though they also murder Iraqis. None of the others, though, violent though they may be, are so thoroughly totalitarian, so alien to the traditions of Iraqi culture, and so hostile to its centuries-old social fabric. Al Qaeda in Iraq tears at Iraq’s traditional culture as viciously as Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.
If you want to understand Al Qaeda in Iraq — its methods, its rise, and its fall — you’ll find their story has more in common with “the Shining Path’s guerrilla and terrorist war in Peru”: than with the Islamic religion as practiced in the mosques of Fallujah.
“Nowadays we can analyze what is going on,” Ahmed said. “In the Sunni area, in the Western area, we have people being killed by Al Qaeda. The tribes and locals civilians here are standing up to fight the Al Qaeda organization because of that. We have been moving one step forward and two steps backward. We are now only semi-literate people. We need some more education.”
“Were all the insurgents here Al Qaeda, or were there other organizations also?” I said.
“The Al Qaeda organization is the major one,” said Omar. “They made some smaller sub-organizations for themselves to assist them by another name. But, in fact, they are all Al Qaeda.”
According to the conventional wisdom, Al Qaeda makes up only a very small part of Iraq’s insurgency. Maybe that’s true, overall. But I have not been able to find a single person on the ground in Western Iraq — not American, and not Iraqi — who says anyone other than Al Qaeda has played a significant role in the insurgency.
“Al Qaeda’s main task was to kill Iraqis,” Mohammed said. “That’s all. No matter how or when or why. They just want to kill people in Iraqi lands.”
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The Iraqi Police are asking Fallujah civilians to phone in or email tips on insurgent activity. The program is a smashing success.
“Well, what was their real objective here?” I said. “Surely they had an objective other than just killing people. They wanted to accomplish something.”
“Of course,” Omar said. “This organization belongs to somebody, somebody outside the country. I blame Syria and Iran. There are small cells running around in this country in favor of those two countries.”
The Syrian and Iranian regimes may or may not use Al Qaeda cells for their own reasons, but the fighters who make up Al Qaeda are not fighting for Alawite Baathism or Shia Theocracy.
“Don’t you also have problems here with Islamist extremists from Saudi Arabia?” I said.
“Actually, yes,” Omar said. “They have been here in this area. But they aren’t right now for the time being. If you look at Al Anbar Province, it’s becoming a stable and safe area. This image is being projected to the other provinces. Kirkuk and Mosul appreciate this and are trying to achieve the same thing.”
“How long do you think the Americans should stay here?” I said. “And I mean here in the Fallujah area, not in the whole country.”
“I anticipate that the American forces will be withdrawn to major bases in Iraq,” said Ahmed. “They will finish their mission here in, let’s say, one or two years. Maybe one and a half years.”
“A lot of people say that the Americans are here to benefit from the oil and the Iraqi economy,” Omar said. “They want to do business in this country. But the Americans could have just asked Saddam Hussein for that.”
“What do you guys think of Saddam Hussein?” I said.
“We appreciated the leadership of Mr. President Saddam Hussein,” Ahmed said. “Because now we are sacrificing a lot. Because of the Al Qaeda organization. Saddam was painful. I admit that. But it wasn’t as bad then as it is now.”
“During the leadership of Saddam Hussein,” Omar said, “you could say he was a one-man commander, or a dictator. He was only representing himself. But at least during that particular time, we felt safe.”
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Three Fallujah civilians
I should point out that the overwhelming majority who live in the Fallujah area are Sunni Arabs. The Kurds — who also mostly are Sunnis — and the Shia Arabs did not enjoy the relative sense of security felt in this area.
“We were secure in our homes and our properties,” Omar continued. “We can’t compare that to the situation we have now with all these different types of organizations running around all over the country. Before there was nothing like an Al Qaeda organization here. I mean, they were here, but they were secretive, they were not in the field, they were not recognized yet. But now we feel that they are serious, that something big is going on.”
Did the American invasion of Iraq inadvertently unleash this terror on the country? It would seem so. Would it eventually have happened anyway, albeit later? Who knows? At this point, it may not even matter.
“The presence of American forces here proves that there is an Al Qaeda presence in this country,” Omar said. “This is why the American forces are here. Their purpose here is to fight the Al Qaeda organization. If the Americans want to accomplish any future missions, they need to support the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police with weapons and money and other things. Just get us so we can stand and fight side by side and accomplish our missions for the Iraqi lands. The more equipment you give us, and the more people you can get enlisted in the Iraqi Army, the more support you will have from our side.”
“We will need some kind of protection after the American forces leave the area,” Ahmed said. “If you don’t support the Neighborhood Watch and the Iraqi Police, we’ll achieve nothing. We need more support, more equipment, more weapons for the locals here. Anbar Province should be an example for all the other Iraqi provinces. That’s the main thing we can do for you.”
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“Iraqi soldiers and the locals here are very brave,” Omar said. “Americans know it, because they have given them the authority to take action against Al Qaeda. It’s dangerous, but they are very good soldiers. You can count on them. But they cannot control Iran. Iran is the most important resource for the terrorists in this region.”
“Is it true that the local people here welcomed the insurgents at first?” I said. It’s hard to gauge how many locals were, as Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Malay put it a few years ago, friendlies, fence-sitters, and fuckos.
“Yes,” Mahmoud said. “And there was a reason for that. First, they were afraid of the insurgents. They were really scared. They didn’t want to support them, but they didn’t have any choice.”
“Why did they have no alternative?” I said. “The Marines were here, too.”
Weren’t they? I didn’t quite believe the probably face-saving argument that no one supported the insurgents except out of fear, or that the “awakening” alliance between Iraqis and Americans could not, at least in theory, have started earlier than it did.
“Actually,” Mohammed said, “the Marines came, achieved their mission, and left. The insurgents lived in the city with the civilians, at home, in every part of the town. The American forces did not get involved.”
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