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Dr Musa A Keilani: Twist in troubled history
August 01, 2012
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Jordan, which has suffered greatly at the hands of Al Qaeda since the 1990s, does not feel relaxed with what is going on in Iraq now. The latest surge of violence indicates that the group has gathered surprising strength and could be gaining ground, further destabilising the region.

More than 150 people were killed last week after an Al Qaeda In Iraq  (IQI) leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi – a  pseudonym – announced in an audio recording posted on a militant website that the group was launching an offensive aimed at regaining ground that they lost in the face of an intense American military push in the last few years.

“We are starting a new phase in our struggle with a plan we named ‘Breaking the walls,’ and we remind you of your priority to free the Muslim prisoners,” he said.

“At the top of your priorities regarding targets is to chase and liquidate the judges, the investigators and the guards,” he said.

He called on Iraqi tribal leaders to send their men to join Al Qaeda as it returns to areas from which the group was forced to withdraw in 2007 and 2008.

Baghdadi praised Syria’s uprising and urged new recruits to join Al Qaeda ranks there which totalled  thousands of fighters. He also addressed Americans.

“You will soon witness how attacks will resound in the heart of your land, because our war with you has now started,” Baghdadi said.

A series of attacks began the day after Baghdadi’s announcement. An Iraqi military helicopter was reportedly shot down on Thursday, killing one soldier.

Iraqi security forces are seen in a position to hold their ground in the face of an open conflict with Al Qaeda, but that is not the way the clandestine group works. It knows well that it does not stand a chance of survival if it engages the US-trained Iraqi security forces in an open battle. It resorts to roadside attacks and bombings, including suicide blasts, and that makes it almost impossible for Iraqi security forces to find an enemy to fight.

The surge in Al Qaeda activity in Iraq is alarming since it comes as the crisis across the border in Syria is worsening. AQI has declared that it was joining the rebellion against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, although there has been no solid evidence that the group’s fighters were fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army rebels.

The Turkish-based Syrian opposition has denounced Al Qaeda and refuted all reports of an alliance with the group.

Reports indicate that AQI has developed close ties with a third Syrian militant group that is outside the umbrella of the opposition in the battle against the Assad regime.

It is a security vacuum along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The unorganised Syrian rebels have seized control of the official border crossings and the regime has recalled soldiers patrolling the border in order to fight the rebels in Damascus, Aleppo and other towns. Cross-border movements have become relatively easy.

Within Iraq, the resurgence of Al Qaeda is ominous.

Once a large number of Iraqi Sunnis backed the group against the Shiite regime. However, the US military successfully persuaded them to turn their back on Al Qaeda by employing them and paying them wages.

That is what turned the tide in favour of the US in the fight against Al Qaeda in the country. Now that the Americans have departed and the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has failed to keep his pledges to absorb the so-called Sunni Awakening movements into the country’s regular security forces, the situation was ideal for Al Qaeda to strengthen itself. And that is what it seems to have done.

On the other hand, it could also be argued that Awakening fighters do not need Al Qaeda leadership to wage their war against the Maliki regime. Most of the Awakening fighters were members of Saddam’s military. Many of them are armed and many of them were trained in guerrilla warfare.

Now they seem to be using their skills against the regime and its supporters. What added to their fury over being discriminated in post-Saddam Iraq is the way Maliki cracked down against Sunni leaders and politicians. At least 20,000 Sunnis remain in summary government detention centres accused of being secret members of the disbanded Baath Party.

For the Sunnis of Iraq, an ouster of the Syrian regime of Shiite Alawites presents the opening they are looking for in order to reverse their bad tidings.

A regime change in Damascus means a heavy blow to the Shiites of Iran, Lebanon and Iraq on several fronts.

Tehran will lose its staunchest Arab ally and conduit to Lebanon’s Hizbollah. The threat of the Shiite “crescent” that King Abdullah II warned of, years ago, at the outset of the US-led war in Iraq will certainly fade away.

A weakening of Iran will have a negative impact on the Shiites of Iraq while the Sunnis will be strengthened since a post-Assad Syria would be ruled by the majority Sunnis of the country. The Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis have interacted in the past and they would not have much trouble coming up with a temporary co-ordination against the Shiite government in Baghdad.

Maliki will have to face a resurgent armed Sunni opposition backed by Syria denouncing the Shiite domination of Iraq. No doubt Iran will intervene and it is anyone’s guess what could happen, given also the tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme. What is happening in Iraq today could indeed be the beginning of yet another twist to our region’s troubled history.

The author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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