Al Qaeda in Sunni Triangle


It’s long been suspected that Al Qaeda terrorists have been working with Sunni Arabs (20 percent of the population and for several centuries the chief persecutors of the Shia and Kurd majority) to regain control of Iraq. A recently captured document, written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a known al Qaeda member, puts those suspicions in writing. Al-Zarqawi complains that the Sunni Arabs are not interested in becoming suicide bombers, and the 25 suicide attacks al Qaeda has conducted so far have not been sufficient to get a Shia-Sunni civil war going, or driving coalition forces from the country. Al-Zarqawi also mentions the difficulty of operating in Iraq, with the Shia and Kurd majority hostile to al Qaeda and the Sunnis lukewarm. Al-Zarqawi also points out that, once the coalition puts enough Iraqi security forces into action, it will be very difficult for al Qaeda to operate, because Iraqi police can quickly spot foreign terrorists. Al-Zarqawi doesn’t come right out and say it, but he implies that the Iraqi Sunni Arabs area bunch of wimps.

This document was apparently released because it made coalition efforts look good, which is useful both among Iraqis, and with critics in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world.

Al-Zarqawi’s theory that al Qaeda could trigger a civil war that would result in the Sunni Arabs getting back in power is pretty far out. The Iraqi Shia Arabs are well aware that al Qaeda and the Taliban persecuted Afghan Shias and that al Qaeda does not, in general, see the Shia as “true Moslems.” Al-Zarqawi appears to be aware that the Sunni Arabs are in big trouble once Iraq has a real election. The Shia and Kurds will be in charge and they will not be gentle with any Sunni unrest. A big problem for the U.S. is preventing the Shia and Kurds from undertaking a brutal “payback” campaign against the Sunni Arabs once the Shia and Kurds are in control.

A more troublesome problem are the four militias that have been allowed to exist in Iraq. Most of these armed men are in the two Kurdish militias (each representing one of the two political parties that control northern Iraq) that amount to about 50,000 armed men. The Pentagon has to come up with various “offers you can’t refuse” for the militias in order to get them to disband. For the Kurds, the Turks are useful. Last week, the Turks threatened to invade northern Iraq if the Kurds get too independent. Thus all the U.S. has to do is tell the Kurds that “we can no longer protect you from the Turks.” This is a very frightening thing for the Kurds. They do not want to fight the Turks, because they would lose big time.

The two other militias are Shia. The Badr brigade is an organization that was based in Iran for the last decade and comprise several thousand armed men. The Sadr militia, perhaps a thousand armed men, was formed by the son of a prominent Iraqi Shia religious leader murdered at Saddam’s orders in 1999. Moktada al-Sadr, the son of the murdered religious leader, is a young guy trying to make up for lack of stature by running his mouth. Sort of the Al Sharpton of Iraq. Not a major threat if he has to be confronted with force. But Sadr is apparently crazy enough to fight. His violent, anti-American rhetoric has talked him into a corner. If Sadr backs down, he loses face with his followers. If Sadr follows up on his rabid rhetoric, he runs into resistance from the majority of Shia, as well as superior coalition firepower.

American Forces Press Service has more:

A suspected al Qaeda operative’s urging of starting a religious civil war in Iraq indicates that terrorists are increasingly uneasy over pro-coalition developments in that country, senior U.S. officials said in Baghdad today.

Commenting on an article that appeared in today’s New York Times, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations director for Combined Joint Task Force 7, acknowledged to reporters that coalition forces had intercepted a courier and confiscated a letter written by Abu Musab al Zarquwi, a known terrorist with suspected links to al Qaeda.

The author of the 17-page letter writes about conducting 25 anti-coalition operations since being in Iraq, Kimmitt said, but the tone of the letter indicates that the terrorist “is disappointed in his lack of success.” The letter urges terrorists to attack Shiite Muslims in Iraq, in an apparent attempt to precipitate religious civil war, said Dan Senor, senior spokesman of the Coalition Provisional Authority, who accompanied Kimmitt at the press briefing.

Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and were persecuted by deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim. Under Saddam, the Sunnis — about a third of Iraq’s people — held key government positions. Sunnis have often decried their loss of political power since the fall of Saddam’s government.

Terrorists realize “that failure to defeat us in Iraq will be a major setback for their overall terror war,” Senor pointed out, noting, “The buildup of Iraqi security forces is putting increasing pressure on the terrorists.”

Senor said the terrorists are nervous about the upcoming June 30 handover of sovereignty from the CPA to the Iraq people.

The terrorists, he explained, “recognize that as we politically empower the Iraqi people … it will be harder and harder for them to operate.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jane says:

    A central government strong enough to prevent civil war yet provences empowered enough to prevent a dictator, tricky.

    Pluralism through ethnic geographical divisions (kurdish plan) looks like an early nigeria.