Marriage On The Rocks
Is al Qaeda of Iraq wearing out its welcome?


James S. Robbins

Could the Sunnis be the solution to the problem of al Qaeda in Iraq? Recent events have shown that the marriage of convenience between domestic opponents to the new Iraqi government and foreign terrorists seeking to foment a civil war may be headed for annulment.

The strain has been showing in recent weeks in Ramadi, the capital of al Anbar province, along the Euphrates River west of Baghdad. Seeking to incite a violent confrontation, Zarqawi’s terrorists had ordered members of the city’s Shia minority to get out of town. On August 13, they tried to eject them by force, and found the way barred by armed Sunni militia. The ensuing gun battle lasted for an hour before Zarqawi’s fighters retreated. On August 18 a group of mostly Sunni political, tribal, and religious leaders (including the governor of al Anbar), hosted by the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, were meeting in a mosque discussing the new constitution when Zarqawi’s men opened fire on them. The next day Abu Muhammad Hajeri, a Saudi leader in Zarqawi’s group, was found dead with three other members of the group, killed by local tribesmen in retaliation.

Infighting like this is not unprecedented–last March seven foreign fighters were killed in Ramadi, allegedly as reprisal for the assassination of a prominent member of the Dulaimi tribe and former officer in Saddam’s fedayeen militia who was working with Coalition forces in Fallujah. The Dulaimi are one of the largest tribes in Iraq, and had enjoyed a measure of autonomy under Saddam’s regime. They boycotted the January 2005 elections, but have since moved towards sanctioning limited participation in the political process. The Dulaimi led the defense of the Shia families in Ramadi; such a prominent Sunni group becoming engaged in the political system cannot be good news for Zarqawi.

Zarqawi’s group styles itself as an insurgency, and in the grand scheme of things they aspire to be regional or even global revolutionaries under the leadership of Osama bin Laden. However, their biggest problem in Iraq is that they have no popular base. Their main sources of support are external forces seeking to destabilize the country, such as Iran, Syria, and some private interests in Saudi Arabia. Zarqawi’s domestic backers only lend him aid as a matter of expediency and opportunism; it is nice to have a supply of foreign suicide attackers around. But this commonality of interests will not last forever–indeed the worm seems to be turning–and when al Qaeda becomes more liability than asset the Sunnis may well start cashing in on the millions we are offering in reward money.

Al Qaeda has not been particularly adept at achieving its goals in Iraq. Sure, they can kill people–more often than not Iraqis–but their acts of violence have not drawn them noticeably closer to their strategic objectives. For example, we know that al Qaeda is seeking to foment ethnic civil war in Iraq. Zarqawi’s group has lately been focusing attacks on the Badr Corps, the main Shia militia, trying to incite them to general war on the Sunnis. Shia leaders have wisely not allowed themselves to be baited; the political drift is in their favor, and it would be foolish to play Zarqawi’s game. So insistent are the Shia on keeping the peace that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has issued a fatwa against using the terms “Sunni,” “Shia,” and “Kurd,” in favor of the word “Iraqi.”

Likewise the terrorists have also not been able to derail the march towards democracy. The success of the January election showed they could not cow people seeking to express their sovereign will. Death threats and assassinations have no slowed the process of drafting the new constitution. Moreover, the October constitutional referendum presents the terrorists with a conundrum. The constitution can be defeated if enough people oppose it, but al Qaeda has already said that those who participate will be considered heretics and be killed. Even opponents of the document see how foolish this position is, and one Sunni cleric in Fallujah issued a fatwa encouraging people to register to vote to preserve their option to vote “no.” But the foreign terrorists are true to their word, which is what led to the attack in Ramadi on the Sunni leaders discussing the constitution.

As more Sunnis realize that their interests are diverging from those of the terrorists, we will see more such episodes, and more deadly retaliation against the terrorists. Al Qaeda will not foment ethnic conflict but rather incite the more politically savvy opposition groups to begin to roll up the terrorist networks. Watch for more statements calling for the withdrawal of all foreign elements from Iraq, whether Coalition forces or Zarqawi’s multinational terrorist troop. In the long run, of course, we would be happy to leave; and if the Sunnis want to clean out the foreign terrorists who are making life increasingly difficult for them, we can exit even sooner.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.