April 28, 2004 | Chicago Sun-Times


One day last May, I tuned in to Al-Jazeera's TV news broadcast and heard a Sunni cleric state: “The town of Fallujah refuses the occupation by the infidels, and will resist it.” This Sunni cleric was delivering his Friday “khutba,” the weekly sermon aired from inside a mosque.

Two matters drew my attention immediately. One was that the rhetoric was fundamentalist in its essence; and, second, that it was broadcast the same day on Al-Jazeera television. While the world was debating the claims of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. forces were busy trying to find Saddam Hussein, the jihadists were setting their system of operation, just a few weeks after the fall of Saddam.

How, then, did Islamist jihadists infiltrate Iraq and its Sunni “triangle” in a few weeks and install a sheikh in one of its mosques? Obviously, the Wahabi network was there even under Saddam. There is no doubt about that. More worrisome to me, as a scholar in Arab politics, was the fact that Al-Jazeera chose Fallujah to report from, among the hundred towns in central Iraq, let alone the entire country, that it could have selected. This occurred just a few weeks after thousands of Shiites marched in celebration with the U.S. Marines in downtown Baghdad.

As of early June, Al-Jazeera started to show small demonstrations in a Sunni urban area, not far from the capital. Every Friday, the station would air a long segment from the fundamentalist clerics. By the first weeks of July, incidents with U.S. troops mushroomed. “Fallujah is the future of Iraq,” shouted bearded men in the street, while other “fighters” shot at coalition patrols.

On Al-Jazeera and soon on Web sites, the “Fallujah jihad” emerged as a central theme. I wrote e-mails to the media and spoke to experts about this throughout the summer. From the moment I saw the first signs, as of May, I realized that the jihadi plan was to locate a base within the Sunni Triangle and start the counter-liberation against the coalition.

With time, news reports would show, with clear evidence, that two forces landed in this urban base in Fallujah. Many came from Syria and many others came from Saudi Arabia. The bottom line was that somewhere, at some time, as Saddam's regime was collapsing, the counter-offensive was unfolded by the anti-coalition war room. Fallujah was to become the centerpiece.   

The rest is a mechanical game, now known to all. The Fallujah cells opened fire on coalition forces, inviting the latter to react, bomb and deploy more troops. Al-Jazeera would film and air both the U.S. response and strong responses by Wahabi clerics. The chain of events was so predictable that I thought Washington realized what was happening and would react appropriately. My real surprise, therefore, was the U.S. mishandling of Fallujah. Not that the intelligence wasn't there and that the enemy was succeeding in widening the enclave, but that no political response was developed either by the administration in Iraq, or by the Ruling Council in Iraq for many months.

Fallujah was a sort of a weekly TV show, almost like “Dallas.” Every media outlet reported what was happening, but almost no one explained what it was, or why it was. Al-Jazeera did both, and naturally aired its own “view” of it. To experts on jihadism, the story was clear.

By the time Fallujah became the capital of Iraq's fundamentalist intifada, many U.S. soldiers were killed. By the time the media started to focus on this town, the terrorists gave them a horror show: the barbaric execution of the contract workers. From that time on, the jihad planners got the attention of the world and let the circus begin.

Fallujah has become Mogadishu, or at least that is what al-Qaida has been able to achieve. Many times a day, we get audio-visual reports from the “situation in Fallujah.” The Arab radical media is up in arms and drags the attention of the masses onto the fate of the martyr city. Today, the single most important news question is when, how and should the U.S. forces attack the town. Some even talk about an “invasion.”

By that fact alone, the “Jihad War Room” has scored at least one point. It has created with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and Al-Jazeera footage a space to absorb the political future of Iraq. Whether it wins remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the Fallujah drama has two futures: either the militiamen and terrorist cells will spread their model throughout the Sunni Triangle and create a Gaza-like country in the middle of Iraq, or the U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts will end the last significant Tora Bora of Iraq.

The days and weeks ahead will tell us more.

Walid Phares (www.walid phares.com) is a professor of Middle East studies and an Iraq/terrorism analyst for MSNBC.