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The Zero-Hour
Remember the Zarqawi letter.


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Andrew C. McCarthy

The savage decapitation of Nick Berg. The brutal murder of Ezzidin Salim, president of the Iraqi Governing Council. The discovery of sarin nerve gas in a roadside bomb planted in the hope of killing American troops. The relentless attacks on Coalition forces. In the ghastly crescendo of the past week reverberates the sinking fear that events are careening out of control, that Iraq is plunging into chaos. Events, however, are actually proceeding exactly according to plan–the plan it must remain our mission to recognize and defeat.

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It was back in January when a courier was apprehended attempting to deliver to al Qaeda’s leadership an extraordinary letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ruthless terrorist commander for whom the Berg beheading was only the most recent barbarity. The letter is receiving scant attention these days. It is old news, overwhelmed by daily butchery and the mainstream media’s myopia over abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. It is more than worth review, though. It foretold with precision the very mayhem we are now slogging through, and mapped out a plan for terrorist victory that we owe it to our country, and to those who have laid down their lives in this cause, to demolish.

Five months ago, Zarqawi starkly described his anxiety: although numerous successful terror attacks had been executed by his militant Islamists–amiably labeled “the insurgency” by the press, but called “the mujahedeen” by Zarqawi–the United States was standing firm. “America,” he wrote, “has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes.”

This, he bemoaned, set the stage for the jihadists’ crushing defeat, for it meant not only that “our field of movement is shrinking and the grip around the throat of the mujahedeen has begun to tighten,” but also that soon the U.S. would turn over control of Iraq to an indigenous government whose security forces would be “intimately linked to the people of this region.” That could not be allowed to happen, for it would leave the militants with only two choices, both unacceptable: to fight the Iraqi people or to skulk away in defeat. As Zarqawi ruefully put it:

1) If we fight them, that will be difficult because there will be a schism between us and the people of the region. How can we kill their cousins and sons and under what pretext, after the Americans start withdrawing? The Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of this land will be the authority. This is the democracy. We will have no pretext.

2) We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like it has happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By God, this is suffocation! We will be on the roads again. People follow their leaders, their hearts may be with you, but their swords are with their kings.

Zarqawi nevertheless took heart. Things in Iraq were not hopeless. Although the American occupation had made it difficult to recruit and train new militants, “praise be to Allah,” he observed, “with relentless effort and searching we have acquired some places and their numbers are increasing, to become base points for the brothers who will spark war and bring the people of this country into a real battle with God’s will.” Moreover, weaponry in what had been Saddam’s Iraq had proved abundant, enabling pockets of jihadists to cause mounting casualties for just over 130,000 U.S. troops trying to occupy and subdue a battlefield the size of California. As Zarqawi recounted: “There is no doubt that American losses were significant because they are spread thin amongst the people and because it is easy to get weapons. This is a fact that makes them easy targets, attractive for the believers.”

For the Islamic militants at his command, then, Zarqawi saw their terrorist campaign as a race against time–time that would run out if a successful transfer of sovereignty were permitted to occur. In his prophetic words:

We are hoping that we will soon start working on creating squads and brigades of individuals who have experience and expertise. We have to get to the zero-hour in order to openly begin controlling the land by night and after that by day, God willing. The zero-hour needs to be at least four months before the new government gets in place. As we see we are racing time, and if we succeed, which we are hoping, we will turn the tables on them and thwart their plan. If, God forbid, the government is successful and takes control of the country, we just have to pack up and go somewhere else again, where we can raise the flag again or die, if God chooses us.

Sovereignty, of course, is scheduled to revert to the Iraqis on July 1. To say that Iraq has been a bloody mess since Zarqawi penned this letter would be an understatement. It is not, however, an unexpected mess. It is exactly what was promised.

The sarin, the Council president’s brazen murder, and the butchery of Nick Berg must anneal our resolve, not diminish it. The enemy is desperately stepping up its attacks because the enemy has glimpsed defeat. Defeat for the jihadists can be avoided only if America loses its sense of purpose and shrinks from its mission. It can be avoided only if an effectively abandoned Iraq is allowed to descend into civil war–particularly, the sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shia that Zarqawi expressly sought to provoke.

Even for those of us who remain steadfast that the U.S. incursion into Iraq was a vital step toward vanquishing the militant Islamic threat that Saddam protected and promoted, it must be conceded that there is much for people of good will to debate–both about the concept and the execution. But now is not the time. There is, after all, nothing to debate about this: In Iraq are thousands upon thousands of our best and bravest, in the thick of what the enemy aptly calls “the zero-hour”; and we have not only rhetorically linked this battle to the war our nation engaged after the 9/11 attacks, but our military is incontestably fighting the world’s most lethal terrorists at this very moment.

We have to win, and win convincingly. Anything less will tell the jihadists that, when the going gets tough, the U.S. doesn’t have the stomach to face them down. If that is our posture, 9/11 will most be remembered as a harbinger of worse to come.

–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is an NRO contributor.



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