The Iraqi elections are over and, by all accounts, ended reasonably successfully. While I refused to engage in the kind of calculus of killing that some had set into prior to the voting (discussions of how many people have to die for us to consider it an "unsuccessful" election), I will be quite frank and say that based on what I heard while I was in DC for the inauguration that the US was expecting Zarqawi or "Z-Man" as they call him in military circles (a reference, or so I understand it, to a transvestite from a 1970s X-rated film) to hit them with everything he had. As in, people were talking quite seriously about between 500 to a 1,000 casualties and this was just in defense circles.
When Brigadier General Erv Lessel was talking about a spectacular terrorist attack on the elections just 6 days ago, he was talking about 9/11 or equivalent level attacks. It is for that reason that I think it's best that we take the time to fully appreciate what we were going up against here so we can understand the full magnitude of what has just been accomplished.
Praktike made this same point in his own run-down of the Iraqi elections and I'd like to echo it with one of my earlier statements from April 8, 2004, back when the conventional wisdom was that Sadr and the Mahdi Army were the vanguard of a Shi'ite revolt that would drive the US out of Iraq:
One of the most annoying factors that one encounters within blogosphere, shifting only back and forth depending on which side of the ideological spectrum that a blog in question is located on, is that US foreign policy in general and success or failure in Iraq in particular is viewed solely through the lense of which US political party will benefit from it. I'm not particularly certain when this point of view became prevalent and to be quite frank, I really don't care. US success in Iraq is a good thing for the United States as a whole, not just for George Bush. Similarly, a US failure in Iraq will be an unparalleled disaster for us all, not simply for all of the chickenhawk warbloggers like myself who supported the invasion.
The inverse of that last statement is, of course, that a US success in Iraq (which is what I think it's fair to call the elections a part of, though they were of course also due to the actions of the Iraqi people) is good for the United States as a whole, not just George Bush. At the same time, I would be extremely hesitant to use the success of the Iraqi elections as yet more fodder for the war in Iraq debate before we even know the results. Still, if all goes as has been reported so far it would seem that the elections have been, one might say, a "catastrophic success," especially considering what could have gone wrong.
As long as I'm putting things in perspective here, let me just take this opportunity to demonstrate why I think that everyone reading this needs to appreciate the success of yesterday's elections when viewed through the framework of what could have happened:
- Simultaneous mass casualty terrorist attacks (as in a replay of the Ashura Massacre at the very least) throughout Iraq, particularly in the northern and southern regions of the country that were expected to be largely peaceful
- Sniper teams targeting the Iraqi voting centers
- The use of some type unconventional weaponry against the polling centers
- Ethnic violence in Kirkuk or Mosul along Kurdish-Turkmen or Kurdish-Arab lines
- Voter intimidation by the Badr Brigades and/or a resurgent Mahdi Army in the southern region of the country
- Fears that the majority of the Sunni population would do far more than just boycott the elections
- General low turn-out due to security fears
All of these possibilities had been predicted by intelligence analysts, cited by pundits, and threatened by the insurgents themselves at one point or another during the run-up to the vote. None of it happened and in my view, that's reason enough to be thankful today as we wait for the election returns to come in.
I see that Newsweek has a pretty good primer on the Iraqi insurgency's evolution, though I have some quibbles with a few portions of it, it does give us some interesting information as to what fate might await Zarqawi now that his much-threatened streets running red with blood and bluster about the angel of death coming for Allawi has failed to occur:
Jihadi sources told NEWSWEEK last summer they were getting sick of Zarqawi, who seemed to be hijacking the insurgency. A series of grisly video clips on the Web that showed him beheading foreign hostages did not draw the kind of attention that many would-be resistance leaders wanted. His attacks on Iraqis ran counter to the nationalist ideas of many rebels. Some jihadist groups in Fallujah talked of arresting Zarqawi or killing him, according to a source in frequent contact with them. As late as November, when U.S. troops finally made an all-out assault on Fallujah, a senior Coalition official tells NEWSWEEK, the attack was delayed in hopes Zarqawi would be turned over peacefully.
But something had happened in August or September that Iraqi government officials have not yet fully deciphered. Suddenly the hostile rhetoric between nationalist rebels and Zarqawi ended. His open letters to Osama bin Laden, and his statements on the Internet, no longer belittled Iraqi colleagues in arms. And officials saw more and more instances of coordination between military-style units and terrorist operators: suicide bombs followed by ambushes; efforts to breach heavy defenses with combined attacks including platoon-size forces.
What happened? Barham Salih's theory: "The Baathists regrouped and in the last six or seven months reorganized. Plus they had significant amounts of money, in Iraq and in Syria." Those contacts and networks that Saddam's key cronies began developing months before the invasion now paid off. An understanding was found with the Islamic fanatics, and the well-funded Baathists appear to have made Syria a protected base of operations. "The Iraqi resistance is a monster with its head in Syria and its body in Iraq" is the colorful description given by a top Iraqi police official. (Syrian officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK adamantly deny this, while jihadi foot soldiers speak openly of an underground network that smuggles fighters via Syria.) Zarqawi's people supply the bombers, the Baathists provide the money and strategy. Brig. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal says the alliance has proved a potent combination. "Now between the Zarqawi group and the Baathists there is full cooperation and coordination," he told NEWSWEEK.
Three things happened here that need to be noted. The first is that bin Laden stepped in to clarify the al-Qaeda hierarchy inside Iraq (one of the problems of having such a "decentralized" network is that it can often lead to a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians) by appointing Zarqawi his top commander there, first privately and then publicly via audio address. The second is that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who is described in Newsweek as follows:
Saddam, a paranoid with real enemies, was deeply suspicious of his top aides. But there was one he considered "blindly loyal," as Ballout puts it: Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. Pale, with wispy red hair when he was younger, and a face that seemed to show the skull beneath the skin, al-Duri had been a Saddam crony since the 1950s. But in the largely secular Baath Party, al-Duri stood out for his mystical religiosity. In the 1990s, when Saddam put the phrase GOD IS GREAT on the national flag and banned the drinking of alcohol, al-Duri's influence began to show. Now Islamists were welcome. In January 1993, as the official Baghdad Observer newspaper reported, al-Duri hosted a convention for "more than 1,000 religious, political and cultural dignitaries from 51 countries," urging them "to conduct holy jihad against the U.S. and its allies."
Al-Duri was also assigned the task of repairing relations with the ruling Baath Party next door in Syria. The rival factions had been conspiring against each other since the 1960s, but a series of diplomatic missions—and concessionary oil sales—helped improve relations with the young dictator Bashar al-Assad after he inherited Syria's presidency in 2000. As the American invasion loomed, all these connections became increasingly important for Saddam's guerrilla strategy.
... converted to Wahhabism and swore an oath of allegiance to bayat to Zarqawi at some point between after Saddam Hussein's capture and the initial April 2004 assault on Fallujah. Captured Ansar al-Islam fighters going as far back as December 2003 claimed to have received orders from al-Douri which, combined with the true identity of Abu Wael, very likely push his al-Qaeda ties back even further. Needless to say, al-Douri joining Zarqawi didn't sit too well with the other Baathist leadership, which was already fairly fractured following Saddam Hussein's capture. But what happened between August-September 2004, near as I can tell, is that the two Baathist factions reconciled themselves and suddenly al-Douri's core of former Iraqi troops was supplemented by the skills of the Iraqi Mukhabarat and the money of Baathist financiers based in Syria (who, unlike al-Qaeda's Golden Chain, which underwrites a half dozen insurgencies worldwide at any given time) that enabled them to engage in a greater degree of professionalism and coordination under the general umbrella of Zarqawi's leadership.
Now that his plot to derail the elections has failed, however, it remains to be seen how his higher-ups in al-Qaeda or the exiled Baathist leadership will take his continued presence in the top spot. Newsweek alludes to Zarqawi's meeting with al-Qaeda military commander Saif al-Adel in eastern Iran in February 2003:
Saddam was not the only one preparing for a cataclysmic battle. After the United States crushed Afghanistan's Taliban regime and tore up Al Qaeda's infrastructure in the winter of 2001-02, would-be holy warriors started eying Iraq as a place where they could make a new stand. One of them was Zarqawi. Working with a group of Kurdish Islamic radicals known as Ansar Al-Islam, he established an underground railroad, bringing zealots to northern Iraq through Europe, Turkey and Syria. Other would-be holy warriors started finding their own way to Baghdad. As the American invasion approached, Osama bin Laden's head of military operations, a former Egyptian commando known as Saif al-Adel, laid out a detailed strategy for jihad in Iraq. Bin Laden himself called on holy warriors to join the fight in March and April.
But to get the full gist of what happened we have to go to the Washington Post from September 2003:
The turn toward Iraq was made in February, as U.S. forces were preparing to attack, the sources said. Two seasoned operatives met at a safe house in eastern Iran. One of them was Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, the military chief of al Qaeda, who is better known as Saif Adel. He welcomed a guest, Abu Musab Zarqawi, who had recently fled Iraq‘s Kurdish northern region after the United States targeted a radical group with which he was affiliated, Arab intelligence sources said.
The encounter resulted in the dispatch of Zarqawi to become al Qaeda‘s man in Iraq, opening a new chapter in the history of the group and a serious threat to American forces there.
Today also marked a major defeat for Abu Musab Zarqawi's Qaedat al-Jihad fi Balad ar-Rafidayyin (formerly al-Tawhid wal Jihad) conglomerate and one that I expect that it will not soon recover from.
Now I know that someone is likely to point out that Zarqawi did succeed in carrying out attacks yesterday, at least of which apparently involved a Chechen and a Syrian, killed between 35 and 44 depending on who you talk to and whether you count the actual suicide bombers in the death toll.
Nevertheless, Zarqawi suffered an unqualified defeat today - one that he is not likely to soon recover from. Not only did he fail at his purported desire to derail the Iraqi vote, but he was unable to carry out anything resembling the kind of operations that his group has mounted in the past in either the Kurdish or the Shi'ite areas of the country. This was literally his "make or break" moment in the eyes of the al-Qaeda leadership and goes to show just how limited the insurgency is to a single geographic area of the country, only being able to launch attacks in other areas such as Irbil or Basra with extensive preparation and planning.
It should also be noted, though it hasn't really registered yet in the eyes of many observers, just how big a number the US has succeeded in doing to Zarqawi's organization in Iraq in recent months since the much-criticized assault on Fallujah. Just based on open-source information (with backgrounders supplied by yours truly) in descending order from the date of their capture or killing, here is a sample of some of the guys that Zarqawi has lost in recent months:
1) Abu Sayyaf (Sayf), aka Salah Salman Idaaj Matar al-Luhaybi - I'm unfamiliar with the al-Luhaybi tribe off-hand, so no clue as far as ethnic origins are concerned but my guess would be Iraqi or Jordanian since there's been an Abu Sayyaf among the mid-level al-Tawhid for quite awhile now. His kuniyat/nom de guerre suggests a familiarity with Abdurajak Abu Bakar Janjalani, a Filipino Moro who fought in the Afghan War using the kuniyat of Abu Sayyaf and later formed an al-Qaeda satellite group in the Philippines under the same name. He's like the second or third emir that Zarqawi had in place in Baghdad since the beginning of the insurgency according to Schanzer's work on al-Tawhid (some of which I want to say ended up in the Weekly Standard?) and my al-Tawhid flow chart has him as a mid-level commander who is in charge of insurgent activities in the greater Baghdad area and answers directly to Zarqawi. Per Deputy Prime Minister Saleh, he met with Zarqawi at least 4 times in December to set up planning for attacks during the elections and to discuss the al-Qaeda reorganization inside Iraq post-Fallujah.
2) Abu Omar al-Kurdi, aka Sami Mohammed Ali Said al-Jaaf - Iraqi Kurd, formerly the top deputy of Ayyub Afghani (aka Ayyub Hawleri), who was Ansar al-Islam's chief bombmaker and a veteran of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan who had a picture of himself meeting with Osama bin Laden. Afghani was apprehended by coalition forces in Baghdad in March 2004 and it appears that al-Kurdi took over as top bombmaker in Baghdad afterwards. He's confessed to involvement in 32 car bombings, but what is likely to be far more interesting is his description of the terror triumvirate that was carrying out attacks in Baghdad and providing bombmaking skills to the insurgents during their opening attack on the Jordanian embassy until Ayyub Afghani's capture.
3) Abu Hassan, aka Ali Hamid (Hamad) Ardani Yassin (Yasin) al-Isawi - This guy's going to be a real diamond in the rough once he starts talking, he's a member of the al-Tawhid ruling council together with Zarqawi, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, Sheikh Abdullah Janabi, and the apparently recently deceased Omar Hadid. Not much on him except that he's part of the original al-Tawhid core going all the way back to the days of the Millennium Plot in Jordan and maybe before that - I'd need to see the GID records on who was in jail with Zarqawi again to make sure. Per Saleh, he'd met with Zarqawi over 40 times in the last 3 months and was captured west of Baghdad, which would seem to confirm speculation that al-Tawhid leadership broke into two groups after losing Fallujah, once of which was headed towards Mosul to join Abu Talha with the other half heading south towards Baghdad.
4) Abu Walid al-Iraqi, aka Anad Mohammed Hamid al-Qais - He's part of the original group of Iraqi al-Qaeda who left the country with Abu Hajir al-Iraqi back in the 1980s to go join the jihad in Afghanistan and he's the only one of these guys who's actually part of the al-Qaeda, not al-Tawhid, which means that he's probably had a lot more combat experience at guerrilla warfare than most of the insurgent leaders. Al-Qaeda's military commander, Saif al-Adel, was originally a special forces colonel in the Egyptian military back when Egypt was part of the Soviet Bloc and he sets up al-Qaeda support for its satellite terrorist groups like al-Tawhid pretty much the same way the Soviets used to their client states: mostly logistical support, with only a handful of actual seasoned al-Qaeda members to serve as military advisors and to provide strategic direction in concert with the network's global strategy as well as to pick out several dozen to several hundred to become part of the core network, which is what the 2025 CIA report was actually referring to. My guess is that Abu Walid was one of these advisors and the reference to him as being a money man would also be consistent with that - it'll be a good idea to pump him for everything they can with respect to the Golden Chain operations inside Iraq.
5) Hassan Hamid Abdullah Mohsen al-Dulaimi - A Fallujah native and the head of propaganda operations for al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Dulaimi wrote most of the leaflets and statements used by al-Tawhid and may well have had a role in Zarqawi's decision to take an anti-Shi'ite bent in his letter to bin Laden that was found on Hassan Ghul in January 2004.
6) Abu Marwan - The logistical chief of the Mosul al-Qaeda cell, Abu Marwan was responsible for serving as the on-scene terrorist commander in Mosul as well as purchasing weapons with money supplied by Abu Talha. He also helped to coordinate the underground railroads and networks of safe houses that brought foreign fighters into Iraq from Syria and Iran. He had extensive ties to the local criminal element as well as to many of the northern Iraqi Islamist groups.
7) Abu Ahmed, aka Abdul Aziz Sadun Ahmed Hamduni - The top deputy of Abu Talha, the emir of Mosul who returned to Iran during the fighting in Fallujah and left Abu Ahmed in charge of al-Qaeda operations in the city in his absence, receiving money and weapons from Abu Talha as well as coordinating with local insurgent groups such as Ansar al-Sunnah and Ansar al-Islam to mount attacks on US forces. He told US interrogators about the pressure that Zarqawi was under from the higher-ups in al-Qaeda as well as his Baathist allies to thwart the Iraqi elections and shed light on the scope of al-Qaeda activities in northern Iraq.
8) Saleh Arugayan Khalil - A commander of al-Qaeda fighters in Fallujah and Ramadi who attempted to flee into rural Anbar and stir up trouble for US forces in the southeastern region of the province.
9) Bassim Mohammed Hazim - The head of one of Zarqawi's kidnapping and assassination cells, he organized several mass killings of Iraqi security forces after being forced to flee Fallujah.
10) Omar Hadid - A former electrician and a member of al-Tawhid wal Jihad's military committee, Hadid served as the day-to-day ruler of Fallujah and other insurgent-ruled areas of Iraq from April to November 2004. A Salafist from Fallujah, he was recruited to join al-Qaeda by a fellow Iraqi al-Qaeda veteran of the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Chechnya despite his high status among the local Baathists (Saddam tried to integrate as many Islamists as possible into the regime following the Gulf War) but eventually had a falling out with the regime and being forced to travel to al-Qaim, Syria, and Saudi Arabia where he became even more radicalized and was sent to northern Iraq to join what was then the Second Souran Unit under Aso Hawleri and eventually hooking up with Zarqawi. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, he returned to Fallujah with a force of 1,500 largely Iraqi, Saudi, and Syrian al-Qaeda fighters he called the Black Banners Brigade and established himself as the emir of the city's Julan neighborhood. His leg was injured during the course of the US assault on the city and he has not been heard
11) Abu Harith Mohammed Jassem al-Isawi - Omar Hadid's second-in-command and partner in crime in the Julan area of Fallujah.
12) Abu Hafs al-Libi - The Libyan spiritual leader of Ansar al-Sunnah who issued fatwas justifying the organization's actions.
13) Abu Anas al-Shami, aka Omar Yousef Jumah - The Palestinian Jordanian spiritual leader of al-Tawhid wal Jihad and a leader among the Jordanian Salafists, al-Shami received religious schooling in Saudi Arabia (where else?) and lived in Kuwait before being expelled during the post-Gulf War pogroms against Kuwaiti Palestinians and returning to Jordan to preach Salafism at a mosque in Amman. The mosque was closed following the Millennium Plot on the grounds that it was promoting a fanatical interpretation of Islam and he left to join Zarqawi in Afghanistan.
14) Hussein Salman Mohammed al-Jabburi - The Mosul cell leader of Ansar al-Sunnah.
Now granted, there are other insurgent leaders still active and they are likely to be continued threat for some time to come, but I don't think it's any stretch to say that Zarqawi's capabilities, while still lethal, are nevertheless being severely curtailed by the continued actions against them by US authorities. While we are not at the end or even the beginning of the end of the insurgency, it now appears that there is something of a light that is starting to form at the end of tunnel with respect to looking for the day when Zarqawi will hang from a gibbet for the sport of his own crows (the reference, lest I be taken too seriously here, is to Theoden's remark to Saruman).
Zarqawi, near as I can tell, has failed both bin Laden and his immediate superior Saif al-Adel at derailing the Iraqi elections. One of the reasons that I never accepted the idea of Zarqawi as a "rival" to bin Laden while he was in Afghanistan was due to the fact that bin Laden is not the sort of man who tolerates rivals when he can easily crush them. If the same proves true of failures, I suspect that we might easily see Zarqawi wind up being severely chastized or dead as a result of his inability to derail the elections given the amount of bluster he had put into doing so. If I were him, I wouldn't be much looking forward to the next al-Qaeda courier who shows up with a message from bin Laden.
Iraqis hadn't been able to choose their leaders at all in recent decades, even by some strange process where they chose unknown leaders. But this process is not a model for anything, and would not willingly be imitated by anyone else in the region. The 1997 elections in Iran were much more democratic, as were the 2002 elections in Bahrain and Pakistan.
I would have to defer to Mahmood on the issue of the Bahraini elections, but with respect to comparing the Iraqi elections to their Iranian equivalents (or to the 2002 elections in Pakistan that elected an impotent parliament), this is just absurd. As just about everyone who is even peripherally aware of how the Iranian government functions should be aware of by now, Iranian elections are run in a Stalinist-style fashion in which the candidates must be pre-approved by the clerical hierarchy for their ideological purity. While such litmus tests weren't nearly as stringent in 1997 as they were in 2004, they were still there and I strongly suspect that Cole and others would strongly object to the US or Allawi implementing similar measures within the Iraqi electoral process. I am not challenging the issue of Khatami being popularly elected, merely the fact that all the folks who want to hail the Iranian elections as more democratic than Iraq's are likely the same people who would cry the loudest were the US to set up a similar electoral screening system.
There is also the slight difference between Iraq and Iran in that the new elected Iraqi government will actually have the power to implement its decisions, whereas the powers of the Iranian parliament are only those that Rafsanjani and Co allow them to have. This strikes me as kind of a big difference, which is one of the reasons why I'm interested in hearing how the Iraqi election was received across the border.