WASHINGTON - As U.S. President George W. Bush's military adventure flounders in Iraq, his administration appears to be increasingly depicting the conflict as a struggle between the U.S.-led Coalition forces and the archetypal terrorist threat posed by the shadowy "radicals and extremists" of al Qaeda, often to the exclusion of other political actors in the mainly Sunni insurgency.
Once a target among many, al Qaeda was last month declared by the U.S. commanders in Iraq as the number one enemy. Yet the terrorist organisation, once described by Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as an "informal, overlapping...group of networks," has become more than just a prominent player in Iraq's amorphous and oft-misunderstood insurgency, which includes former Ba'athists and other insurgent groups with nationalist orientations.
In the public discourse, the group has become the "icon of jihad".
The U.S. counter-insurgency strategy appears set on exaggerating al Qaeda's role and bolstering its identity as an archetypal menace and convenient label to describe the most sensational and gruesome suicide attacks in Iraq, even though the group's number of operations are often dwarfed by those claimed by other factions, according to recent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report documenting the use of media by Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
During an Independence Day address yesterday to the West Virginia Air National Guard, Bush reiterated the threat posed by al Qaeda, and did so with nearly identical language and posturing found in so many previous presidential speeches.
"Many of the spectacular car bombings and killings you see are as a result of al Qaeda -- the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th. A major enemy in Iraq is the same enemy that dared attack the United States on that fateful day," he said.
"Al Qaeda hasn't given up its objectives inside Iraq. And that is to cause enough chaos and confusion so America would leave, and they would be able to establish their safe haven from which to do two things: to further spread their ideology; and to plan and plot attacks against the United States," he said.
Bush also once again reinforced the widely discredited links between Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist government and al Qaeda.
But there are increasing doubts among analysts in Washington about al Qaeda's role as a pervasive and powerful force, an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere to be found (at the same time, no less). The exaggeration of al Qaeda's role in Iraq and throughout the world serves short-term goals but may, in the long-term, have adverse effects for an administration eager to score a victory in its "war on terror".
In a speech at the Naval War College in late June, Bush reportedly referred to the terrorist organisation at least 27 times, seemingly to stir lingering anger over the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington to build support for the "surge strategy", a build-up of U.S. troops that, after six months, has not improved security throughout Iraq, according to a recent report from Editor & Publisher Magazine.
U.S. military and intelligence officers refute the seemingly perennial association between the Iraqi insurgency and al Qaeda, arguing that Iraqis with connections to the transnational terrorist network comprise a small number of those that pose a threat to U.S. troops, according to the same report.
The group known as al Qaeda in Iraq, and headed by Abu Massud al-Zarqawi until his death in June 2006, did not exist before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, did not pledge loyalty to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden until October 2004 and is not controlled by top al Qaeda leadership, they argue.
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"We cannot attribute all the violence in Iraq to al Qaeda," retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in late June. "Al Qaeda is certainly a component, but there's larger components."
Tactically, the "al Qaeda gambit", as described by Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert who specialises in media, is part and parcel of an information operation aimed at shifting Iraqi public opinion against the mainly Sunni-insurgency.
There has been growing opposition by Sunni tribal leaders to al Qaeda in Iraq, and the over the past several months, the emergence of tribal coalitions to restore some semblance of order has reportedly reduced violence in the province once known as an al Qaeda stronghold.
But these new alliances are comprised of political actors who, until fairly recently, were fighting U.S. troops, among them hard-line Bathist insurgents. And Nouri al-Maliki's government fears the Sunni coalitions will result in more militia groups formed along sectarian lines that will ostensibly operate outside the control of the central government.
There also remains concern that, by allying with Sunni insurgent groups to fight al Qaeda, the U.S. is unwittingly arming groups for an all-out civil war in the future, according to a June report in the Christian Science Monitor.
It appears that the Bush administration's untiring strategy of blaming the most sensational and gruesome suicide attacks on al Qaeda will have the adverse effect of bolstering the transnational terrorist network's identity as a resistance movement, at a time when the U.S. reputation in the Iraq and the region is suffering.
By embellishing al Qaeda's power, the U.S. could also marginalise other insurgent groups, who carry out political acts of violence as part of a broader strategy to redress political grievances.
"The labeling of all violence as al Qaeda has the effect of shutting down discussion of the political goals of the insurgency factions- at precisely the time when comprehensive dialogue in Iraq is most urgently needed," wrote Lynch in his widely-read blog, www.abuaardvark.com.
As Bush reiterated the ideological commitment to squashing the clandestine al Qaeda before it arrived on U.S. soil to the crowd of national guardsmen and their families in an airplane hanger in West Virginia, the slick wheels of al Qaeda's media machine were already in high gear.
In a one and a half hour video speech, available on youtube.com, al Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Muslims to unite against the West, and urged greater support for the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda group operating in the country.
"Our beloved brothers in Iraq must realise the critical nature of unity, and that it is the gateway to victory," he said.
With al Qaeda and the Bush administration seemingly locked in the throes of an information war, it remains to be seen what impact exaggerating the al Qaeda threat will have on U.S. success in Iraq, particularly if the shadowy terrorist organisation takes on attributes of a resistance force fighting an occupation.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.