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Al-Qaeda's Threat to Iraq:

Obama's Challenge

By Abbas J. Ali, July 24, 2009

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s public accusation that Saudi Arabia encourages and facilitates terrorism in Iraq was immediately rebuffed by an influential member of the Saudi ruling family, Prince Naif, the second Saudi Deputy Premier and Minister of the Interior.  Naif claimed that the Kingdom does what is in Iraq’s best interest and that it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to improve its border security.
As the slaughtering of innocent Iraqis has dramatically increased in recent weeks, Maliki has issued the strongest worded statement (June 25) released yet. The statement holds neighboring Arab countries responsible for feeding sectarianism and supporting terrorism stating,  “Regrettably, governments and various groups have kept silent as hateful fatwa encouraging killing, labeling people as infidels, and inciting disharmony [in Iraq] are issued. The series of current terrorisms  . . . are the outcome of such horrible fatwas.” 
Malik is referring to several fatwas issued by religious figures in Saudi Arabia which consider the majority of Iraqi Muslims to be infidels. Maliki, however, is embarking on a risky and daring path by publically confronting the Kingdom. It is possible that Maliki wishes that by airing his concerns about the Kingdom’s role in Iraq, President Obama might use his influence and pressure its leaders to cooperate in constraining terrorism in Iraq.
Certainly, Maliki’s gamble will add to his popularity inside Iraq as Iraqis are fed up with terrorism.  Regionally, this gamble will place the Iraqi government against a formidable foe. Since about 1961, the Kingdom’s regional policies have not seen any major setbacks and it has quietly become the undisputed arbiter of Arab and Middle East issues.
Indeed, the Kingdom has effectively utilized its unlimited wealth and resources and its special relations with Washington and London to defeat or obstruct policies of Arab or Muslim countries which aspire for regional leadership or espouse programs inconsistent with the Kingdom’s political design. Whether in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, or Iran, those who have been perceived by the Kingdom’s ruling family as saboteurs of its interests have gone either through turmoil (e.g., Yemen, early 1960s; Syria, 2005; Lebanon, 2008 and 1970s) or total collapse (e.g., Qassim regime, 1963 and Arif regime, 1968 in Iraq).
Both the Obama administration and the preceding one have consistently looked the other way or kept silent when the Iraqi government has voiced its concerns that Saudi nationals are involved in or financing terrorism in Iraq.  Furthermore, Washington has intentionally attributed suicide bombs and other terrorist activities to Bin Laden affiliate’s al Qaeda in Iraq.  However, only handful sympathizers of Bin Laden are operating in Iraq. Iraqi security officers have repeatedly indicated that the lion’s share of terrorism committed against innocent Iraqis have been carried out by religious extremists from various Arab states.
It is not known whether policymakers and the intelligence community in Washington intentionally overlook this reality or are ignorant of it. More likely, politicians and experts in Washington have ignored the fact that bin Laden’s al Qaeda, in the last few years, has mostly existed as an enterprise of a few individuals whom activities are primarily focused on issuing fierce statements and videotapes.
Policymakers in Washington recognize, too, that in the last two decades Israeli domination in the region is characteristically linked to the survival of the Arab authoritarian regimes.  These regimes have effectively utilized extremists in their struggle against the patriotic and resistance forces, be they in Lebanon or Palestine, which have significantly obstructed Israeli design for the Middle East.  Therefore, Washington fears that any pressure on these regimes may weaken their grip on power and ultimately endanger Israel’s regional dominance.
Back in the early 1980s, the intelligence community in Washington faced three challenges: the popularity of the 1979 Iran Revolution and the possibility of spreading the revolutionary passion across the Middle East, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the coming to power of the Afghan Communist Party, and the rising threat to the friendly authoritarian Arab regimes which had been confronted with enlightened religious organizations along with traditional   Marxist/nationalist foes.  The Reagan administration thought that dealing with the first two threats would ultimately strengthen the Arab regimes and sustain the supremacy of Israel in the region.
William Casey, then Director of CIA, enthused by neoconservatives, initiated a strategy of broadening reliance on Wahhabi inspired religious groups which were initially pursued by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence. Apparently, Prince Turki viewed channeling religious zealous into the public sphere as a pivotal buffer in protecting the regime from the threat of Arab nationalism and socialism. The advent of the Iranian revolution and the rising influence of Communists in Afghanistan added an immediate and serious threat that needed to be confronted.
Casey’s initiative in broadening reliance on religious fundamentalists stemmed from three pressing obsessions of the Reagan administration: defeating the Soviet Union and communism; having free access to oil; and maintaining the supremacy of Israel in the Middle East. The calculation, at that time in Washington, was that religious fanaticism could be effective strategic tools in the war against communism, Islamic enlightenment, and the Arab national liberation groups.
 Recruiting the Mujahedeen from Arab countries to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and derailing the Iranian revolution became a number one priority in Washington. The Arab authoritarian regimes went along with Washington’s plan and financed most of the Mujahedeen’s operations. This led to the formation of a large base (Qaeda in Arabic) of religious zealots who were later emboldened by victory in Afghanistan and energized by sectarian hatred of Iran.
In practice, the Mujahedeen from each country were an extension of that country’s intelligence agency and often adopted their respective government’s political discourse. While in Afghanistan, however, some of them cultivated a close bond with appealing or financially capable individuals like bin Laden. This predictable but unplanned development constituted the seeds for officially forming bin Laden’s base or al Qaeda. The latter, though small in number relative to the larger base of governments’ nurtured extremists, has departed in some of its political messages from Arab authoritarian regimes’ sanctioned discourse and gradually begun to question the sole reliance of these regimes on Washington for security.
The eventual surfacing of bin Laden’s group as a vocal and independent organization has placed the intelligence communities of powerful Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in an awkward position domestically and internationally. Moreover, bin Laden’s al Qaeda has started to compete with Arab intelligence agencies for the allegiance of extremist groups.
This development has forced the intelligence community in Arab countries, allied with Washington, to reinvigorate the loyalty of extremists to their respective government and steer them away from bin Laden’s al Qaeda.  The ascendency of the Iraqi Muslim majority to power and their friendly relationship with Iran have given these intelligences timely ammunition to rally extremists behind their own governments and regain their devotion by aggressively projecting the majority of Iraqi Muslims as heretics who have to be defeated.
Middle East political analyst, Kamal Al-tawil, has attributed most of the recent terrorist acts in Iraq to powerful Arab states. Al-tawil argues that these states are determined to turn Iraq into a dysfunctional entity and to prolong the presence of foreign troops. These states worry that a healthy, independent, and functional Iraq ultimately represents a peril to their oppressive regimes.
 Al-tawil’s assertion that other types of al Qaeda associated with the intelligence agencies of Arab governments, rather than bin Laden’s group, carry out the largest share of terrorism in Iraq needs to be independently verified. Nevertheless, it seems that Prime-Minster Maliki, and the majority of Iraqis, agree with his analysis and conclusions. In fact, Maliki’s recent assertiveness and articulation on the source of terrorism leaves no doubt that the neighboring Arab states have activated the surge in violence in Iraq.
 Middle East experts emphasize that the Arab governments and their respective intelligence communities are behind the formation, and the demise, of their own forms of al Qaeda, be they in Iraq or the greater Middle East. These include the al Zarqaui Group, Fatah al Aslam, al Faruq Brigades, Ansar al Sunna, Ansar al Islam, the Mujahedeen of the Victorious Sect, the Mujahedeen Battalions of the Salafi Group of Iraq, Army of Mohamed, God’s Soldiers, etc.
The intelligence communities of Iraq’s Arab neighbors and Egypt benefit from their close working relationship with western intelligences, especially the CIA.  These Arab intelligences capitalize, too, on their effective mechanisms of stirring sectarian sentiments. This has been successfully implemented in Iraq since 2003 and in Lebanon since 2006. Indeed, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabia intelligences have been credited with using religious hatred in changing the political landscape in Lebanon and in derailing Iraqi efforts to build a functional and healthy state.
These intelligences have penetrated Iraqi social and political life. More importantly, they have allied themselves with factions within the Iraqi government, be they ethnic separatists or sectarian elements, thereby obtaining firsthand knowledge of internal deliberations related to matters important to Arab dictators’ designs. 
 The Obama administration is in a dilemma; how to stabilize Iraq without offending or weakening its Arab allies. In recent weeks, both the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State visited these countries and affirmed the U.S. commitment to them. Likewise, Vice President Biden visited Iraq on July 2-4 and was clear in promoting a political message espoused by Arab authoritarian regimes.
Faced with powerful forces in Washington who seek to keep Iraq colonized and who have vested interests in the survival of Arab authoritarianism, Obama has refrained from articulating a vision for a free, independent, and healthy Iraq. However, this is a defining moment in Iraqi history and Obama has no option but to strongly denounce terrorism and those Arab states which finance and perpetuate violence in Iraq. Without a willingness to confront the Arab dictators, these states will intensify their destabilizing activities and transform Iraq into a veritable hell.
Abbas J. Ali is professor and director, School of International Management, Eberly College of Business, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.





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