April 5, 2006

Az-Zarqawi Demoted by Al-Qa'idah?

According to a story broadcast on April 2 by the Dubai-based Al-'Arabiyah television network, Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi has been reprimanded and demoted. Az-Zarqawi is the Jordanian-born leader of Al-Qa'idah in Iraq (tanzim al-qa'idah fi bilad ar-rafidayn) and was once touted by Al-Qa'idah leader Usamah Bin Ladin as the organization's key player in their war against the United States.

For some time now, Az-Zarqawi's operations in Iraq have been criticized by senior Al-Qa'idah officials. Specifically, he has been told to stop beheading hostages (including Muslims), stop operations in neighboring countries (especially his operations in Jordan) and to discontinue his efforts to foment a civil war between the Sunni and Shi'a factions in Iraq. Some of these admonitions were contained in a letter from Bin Ladin's deputy Ayman Az-Zawahiri. Despite the letter, Az-Zarqawi continued and even increased his attempts to cause sectarian violence in the country. It is widely believed that the bombing of the Al-'Askari Mosque (also known as the Golden Mosque or Al-Hadi Mosque) in Samarra' on February 22 was the work of Az-Zarqawi.

Since Az-Zarqawi is arguably the most effective insurgent operating against American, coalition and Iraq forces, the Al-Qa'idah leadership sought to develop a mechanism to retain Az-Zarqawi as a combatant while preventing image problems for the organization among the fundamentalist Islamic base. To this end, six groups in Iraq (including Az-Zarqawi's) formed the Mujahidin Shura (council). The council issued a statement that Az-Zarqawi will limit his role to military action, while political leadership will be exercised by an Iraqi, 'Abdullah Baghdadi.*

What effect will this "demotion" or division of labor in the Iraqi insurgency have? Perhaps there will be more focused attacks on Iraqi security forces, Iraqi government facilities and officials, but certainly no decrease in the level of effort. Although attacks on American forces are still on the table, the insurgents have learned the hard way that except for the use of improvised explosive devices, operations against U.S. forces are costly.

If the organization has any influence over the insurgency, there should be a decrease in attacks on Shi'a religious institutions, although right now it is hard to judge given the high level of sectarian attacks back and forth in the wake of the Samarra' bombing.

* This is an obvious alias - Al-Qa'idah members often chose a name followed by a nationality or regional designator, in this case, "'Abdullah, of Baghdad."