March 3, 2004 | National Review Online

Zero Hour in Iraq: The Terrorist Campaign Moves Up a Gear

Authored by Andrew Apostolou

SULAIMANI, IRAQI KURDISTAN–The terrorist attacks that claimed over 140 lives in Baghdad and Karbala on March 2, 2004, are probably the start of a new and dangerous stage of al Qaeda’s campaign against the new Iraq. For al Qaeda, and its local affiliated groups, the months in the run-up to the handover of power to a sovereign Iraqi government on June 30, 2004, are a critical moment, an opportunity to inflict a defeat on the U.S. Al Qaeda’s main fear is that the U.S. will create an Iraqi security force with the local knowledge with which to uproot the terrorist cells that they have been planting in Iraq. The terrorists need to prevent such a force from emerging. To do so, they will, over the next four months, commit more brutal acts of murder and attempt to turn Iraqis against each other and, more importantly, pit Iraqis against the U.S. and its Coalition allies.

The terrorists' strategy was outlined in a letter that was captured by the intelligence service of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in January. Coalition and PUK officials believed that the letter was written by Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, a man with a history of al Qaeda contacts. The letter attracted some optimistic comment after the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) published edited extracts. Now that the whole text has been released, it is clear that the Zarkawi letter is far from the cry of desperation of a thwarted terrorist that some have portrayed it as. Rather, the letter outlines a disturbing strategy that seeks to exploit any and every difference in Iraqi society and between Iraqis and the U.S.-led Coalition.

Towards the end of his letter, Zarkawi discusses his plan of action and writes that: “the zero hour, will [come] four months or so before the promised government is formed.” The sovereign Iraqi government that will replace CPA will be installed on June 30, 2004, a little under four months from now. The bombing of Baghdad and Karbala was therefore not just an attack on the Iraqi Shia, whom Zarkawi identified as “an insurmountable obstacle, a lurking snake,” nor just on the Shia holyday of Ashura, which commemorates the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, the timing of the bombings and the choice of the target indicate that “zero hour” has arrived.

At the “zero hour,” the choice of targets is to be broadened to include ordinary Shia Muslims, to provoke them to take revenge on the Sunni Arabs and so start a sectarian war in Iraq. Until now Zarkawi has gone after “symbolic figures,” by which he means leading personalities, among the Shia Arabs and the Kurds. He appears to have been responsible for the August 29, 2003, assassination of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a group with ties to Iran. Zarkawi's operatives were probably also behind the killing of 118 persons, many experienced Kurdish officials, in two coordinated suicide bombings in Erbil on February 1.

According to Zarkawi, the only way to radicalize Iraq's Sunni Arabs is to kill Shia Muslims so as to inflame to persecute the Sunnis. While they number only 15 percent to 20 percent of the population, the Sunni Arabs have long been the politically dominant community in Iraq and are the only community within which Zarkawi, himself a Sunni Arab of Palestinian origin, can hope to draw support. Iraqi leaders rightly closed ranks on March 2, 2004, to defeat this cynical attempt to play off Iraqis against each other.

What Iraqi politicians have missed, however, is that Zarkawi hopes that the anti-Shia attacks, and the subsequent radicalization of the Sunnis, will culminate in a clash between the U.S. and the Shia. According the Zarkawi, the outbreak of a Sunni-Shia sectarian war will allow the terrorists “to [re]shuffle the cards. Then, no value or influence will remain to the Governing Council or even to the Americans, who will enter a second battle with the Shia (emphasis added).”

Zarkawi will have been encouraged that leading Shia politicians have criticized the U.S. for failing to ensure security. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI and the younger brother of the assassinated ayatollah, said that the U.S. had not lived up to its obligation to provide security. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani added that the U.S. had been negligent in not closing Iraq's borders. Many Iraqi Shia have their doubts about both the political intentions and its security capabilities. Their skepticism that is largely a result of the events of 1991, when a massive Shia uprising was brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein while hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in the region but did not intervene.

While the Hakim and Sistani's disagreements with the U.S. are far from the “battle” which Zarkawi is aiming for, disunity between the U.S.-led Coalition and the Shia majority plays into his hands. Already, as Zarkawi has remarked in his letter: “The American army has begun to disappear from some cities, and its presence is rare.” The question that more and more Shia will now ask is why the U.S. is keeping its troops in Iraq if they are unable to prevent terrorist attacks.

Zarkawi shows little interest in killing Americans, even though he claims that they “are an easy quarry.” For Zarkawi, suicide attacks aimed at the Shia are more important as: “God's religion is more precious than anything and has priority over lives, wealth, and children.” Indeed, Zarkawi bemoans small-scale attacks on U.S. forces. Criticizing the insurgency in the “Sunni triangle,” he writes that: “Jihad here unfortunately [takes the form of] mines planted, rockets launched, and mortars shelling from afar.” Iraqis, according to Zarkawi, want to survive combat with U.S. forces. Zarkawi has told the Iraqis that: “safety and victory are incompatible.”

Like the U.S. and Iraqi politicians who are scrambling to meet the June 30, 2004, deadline for the handover of power, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi is also aware of the political timetable. In the weeks and months ahead he will launch more sickening attacks, few in number but devastating in terms of casualties. The U.S. and its Iraqi allies will need a carefully crafted and unified approach to stop Zarkawi from exploiting their differences.

— Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is presently traveling in the Middle East.