April 19, 2010

Al-Masri and al-Baghdadi: Real or Shadows?

In 2006 The Washington Post touched off a quiet controversy when it reported the US military was actively engaged in psychological manipulation against the American people. The idea is that al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, was exaggerated in order to link 9/11 to Iraq and create a foreign lightning rod opposite US forces.

“Leaks to reporters from U.S. officials in Iraq are common, but official evidence of a propaganda operation using an American reporter is rare,” the Post reported.

Denial was swift in the face of such conclusive evidence: “For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi's role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the "U.S. Home Audience" as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign.”

Of course al-Zarqaqwi was real and committed many acts of war and terrorism. His Jordanian status ended up mattering less than blowing up countless Iraqis and the Al ‘Askarī Mosque’s luminous Golden Dome.

The point is that al-Zarqaqwi became a tool of the US military. This could be a good strategy to further an end of the war, but al-Zarqaqwi was primarily manipulated through the US and international media to conceal strategic errors and outright lies from Washington.

Why fix the least broken part of the system?

Fast forward to today. Abu Ayub al-Masri, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported leader of al-Qaeda's local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, are supposedly dead by drone. If they’re really dead then this is big deal - for the few months before they’re replaced.

A point does exists where a guerrilla group is operationally degraded, and there is no reason not to “remove them from the battlefield,” as they say. Now should al-Masri and al-Baghdadi have been killed? Capture, considering the information to raid them came from a capture, seems to be a wiser choice. Maybe they were too dangerous to capture.

But what if al-Baghdadi didn’t exist at all?

Mustafa al-Ani, a security advisor at Gulf Research Centre, told Al Jazeera, "Last year the government showed Baghdadi captured on official TV and then this was denied by the insurgents. I believe Maliki lost credibility as a result. So I don't think Maliki is going to risk losing his credibility a second time without verifying the identity.”

"At the same time we must ask whether Baghdadi is real. It is a possibility that he is a fictitious character used by al-Qaeda. Al-Masri is different - we have photos and a video dating back three years and so his identity is much easier to match."

While al-Ani could be launching his own propaganda through al-Jazeera, the mere speculation of his existence combines with an even more improbable “coincidence,” real evidence of manipulation. If al-Masri and al-Baghdadi weren’t killed today the main headline out of Iraq would be Prime Minister Nori Al-Maliki ordering a recount of Baghdad’s election count.

Definitely not as appealing as, “Top al-Qaida leaders killed in Iraq.”

Look how quickly US officials flanked out despite false alarms in the past. They knew the recount was coming and that they had to run ahead of the story.

"Their deaths are potentially devastating blows to al-Qaida Iraq," Vice President Joe Biden said in Washington. "But equally important in my view is this action demonstrates the improved security, strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis led this operation, and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed."

He didn't mention Iraq's election.

U.S. forces commander Gen. Raymond Odierno thinks, "The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency. There is still work to do but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq of terrorists."

We’ve seen a few analysts claim General David Petraeus toned the rhetoric down, but it doesn’t sound that way: “These two extremist leaders were responsible for barbaric attacks that killed thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens and Iraqi and Coalition Security Force members. Their deaths constitute another major milestone in the effort to defeat extremism in Iraq.”

Though they may all be correct in their assessment of al-Qaeda’s capabilities, their fixation on military operations sloppily masks a twisted political reality in Iraq. Reports have Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr aligning with Ayad Allawi, leader of the Iraqi National Movement (INM), then al-Maliki, then neither. Above is Maliki and Allawi’s direct struggle, while the Kurds prepare to counter any move outside themselves.

"The recount is expected to take at least a week, reports The New York Times. Officials said the three-member court that ruled on Monday was still considering other complaints of fraud and could order recounts in other regions as well. The main Kurdish alliance also objected and asked the court to review votes in two northern provinces, Nineveh and Kirkuk."

Allawi and Sunni blocs are likely to react with their own recount demands.

A Iraqi government will be lucky to form by August, when all US combat forces are supposed to withdraw from Iraq, and if luck fails the possibly remains that its political system jams beyond August. All sides are refusing to take less than the others, logical but not conducive to compromise. The risk of new security, economic, and social weaknesses will continue to increase, creating more triggers for politico-military strife.

We've been told for years that a political solution is the military solution, but perhaps this truism is also laced with propaganda. Now when Allawi warns, “If this happens [the Baghdad recount], there will be very big problems in the country,” the US media’s message is a “potentially devastating blow to al-Qaeda.”

Al-Masri and Baghdadi are probably real, but there is no doubt that America is making them dance. The same disguise of using al-Qaeda to mask Iraq’s sectarian divisions in 2006 is being applied to post-election 2010. Makes the shadows easier to spot at least. What does this fusillade from the White House and Pentagon really say?

They’re worried too.

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