I have interviewed numerous Iraqis aligned with the armed nationalist resistance fighting the US occupation, and none had a good word for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Some even speculated that he was a fictionalized character “used when someone needs to do a bad thing and blame someone else.” Others believed him to be serving British and American interests. Fundamentally, they sharply disagreed with his strategy of attacking Shiites to provoke a regional civil war. He won’t be missed by the armed nationalists on the battlefield. One wonders who really turned him in.
Putting it simply, there are three armed movements in Iraq, and Zarqawi was dividing two against each other.
First, the Sunni and secular nationalists, from former Baathists to people who simply hate the occupation.
Second, the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr, an Arab Shiite who has led two uprisings against the US forces and represents the Shi’a slums from Basra to Baghdad.
While harboring significant differences, these two insurgent forces share a common program: to force the occupiers out of Iraq and form a new coalition government. They are fighting against a largely Shi’a coalition accepting – for now – the American occupation, but who hold deep strategic and cultural links to Iran, including the Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The other American allies are the Kurds, who seek autonomy.
Third, Zarqawi’s force, which is bent on sectarian violence against the Shi’a, creating a barrier to any unity between the Sunni and Shi’a Arab nationalists. This is why so many Iraqis, based on intuition more than evidence, believe that Zarqawi served the classic British [and now American] counter-insurgency aim of dividing its enemies along sectarian lines.
I have no reason to believe Zarqawi was an agent, only a misguided Islamic revolutionary. But I still wonder what those British soldiers disguised as Iraqis were planning on the day they were discovered in Basra in September 2004. I wonder if US Special Forces ever dress up as Iraqis and paint their faces...But perhaps I rely too much on the experience of Northern Ireland, where it is documented that British officers continually managed “assets” bent on sectarian killing expeditions, trying to reduce the nationalist struggle to a religious one. The British then dispatched key officers from Belfast to Basra.
It is enough to argue for now that Zarqawi served the purpose of dividing and fragmenting the Iraqi national resistance into bloody sectarian strife. The tensions were built into the power shift from Sunni to Shi’a, and only needed sectarian leadership to unleash the death squads and ethnic cleansing. In doing so, they gave the US a new rationale for intervention, one appealing to guilty liberals and moderates, the need for an occupier to keep the fanatics from killing each other. Permanently. But in doing so, Zarqawi was engulfing Iraqs in a boiling cauldron that promised no end to the killing and no exit for the US. There were many interests who wanted him dead.