blogenlust
12.28.2004

New Bin Laden Recording


Juan Cole has a very interesting analysis of Osama bin Laden's latest recording, in which he calls on Iraqis to boycott the January 30 elections.
Bin Laden's intervention in Iraq was hamfisted and clumsy, and will benefit the United States and the Shiites enormously. Most Iraqi Muslims, Sunni or Shiite, dislike the Wahhabi branch of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and with which Bin Laden is associated. Nationalistic Iraqis will object to a foreigner interfering in their national affairs. Zarqawi is widely hated in Iraq because the operations of his group often kill innocent Iraqis as opposed to American troops. The Shiites in particular despise Zarqawi, and are aware of his hopes of provoking a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath in Iraq. (The muted Shiite response to the US assault on Fallujah in November and December derived in large part from a conviction that the city had become a base for Zarqawi and like-minded Salafi terrorists). Zarqawi websites have claimed credit for the assassination in 2003 of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a respected Shiite leader, which involved descrating the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The mainstream of the Kurds hates Zarqawi, because of his earlier association with the small Kurdish radical Muslim terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, which targeted the two major Kurdish parties. Bin Laden as much as declared Grand Ayatollah Sistani an infidel. But Sistani is almost universally loved by the 65% of Iraqis who are Shiites, and is widely respected among many Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well. Bin Laden, the Saudi engineer, makes himself look ridiculous trying to give a fatwa against the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf. If anything, to have al-Qaeda menacing the Shiites in this way would tend to strengthen the American-Shiite alliance. If Bin Laden had been politically clever, he would have phrased his message in the terms of Iraqi nationalism. By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he denied himself any real impact. By adopting Zarqawi, who has killed many more Iraqis (especially Shiites) than he has Americans, he simply tarnishes his own image inside Iraq. It appears that Bin Laden is so weak now that he is forced to play to his own base, of Saudi and Salafi jihadists, some of whom are volunteer guerrillas in Iraq. They are the only ones in Iraq who would be happy to see this particular videotape.
I'm really in no position to effectively argue against Cole, especially when it comes to the political situation in Iraq and the greater Middle East. He is probably correct to suggest that there is a potential for this to blowback into bin Laden's face, and it very well could be a sign that bin Laden is increasingly desperate. However, from an American political perspective, one consequence of bin Laden's comments is a further confusion about who it is we are actually fighting in Iraq. In my opinion, this is great political news for Bush. It comes at a time when the situation in Iraq is rapidly deteriorating, and any connection the Bush Administration can make between the Iraqi insurgency and 9/11 is good for them, because it makes the increasingly steep sacrifices more worthwhile for the American public. Perhaps this is why General Richard Myers made the astoundingly incorrect statement that "This attack [in Mosul], of course, is the responsibility of insurgents, the same insurgents who attacked on 9/11." Now why would bin Laden want to help Bush out? I can think of at least one good reason. Since the US is bogged down in Iraq, enabling the Bush Administration to continue to link Iraq and Al Qaeda gives them more justification for staying put, which would further deteriorate American morale and military resources. Of course, it also may be the case that bin Laden had other intentions (like those Cole suggests), and that the positive political implications for Bush are an unintended consequence. So what are the consequences of this good news for the Bush Administration? I'd say any added confusion to who or what or why we're fighting in Iraq is always helpful because when people don't know exactly what is going on, they can't get outraged and they can be easily misled. And where would the Bush Administration be without an apathetic and gullible American electorate? Another potential consequence is that they can use this to widen the war. If AQ and the insurgency are interchangeable, than it is easier to justify an excursion into Syria or Iran. It will be interesting to see how this gets played out. The other night the local news led with the new bin Laden tape, and claimed it was definitive evidence of a link between the insurgency and AQ. Who needs OBL when you have the local news!?