April 7, 2006: It's shaping up to be a bad year for al Qaeda in Iraq. For example.
@ Following months of rumors, it's pretty much been confirmed that al Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi has been demoted. An Iraqi Sunni now heads the operation, with Zarqawi just dealing with "military matters." Even in that respect, Zarqawi is probably on a short leash. His strategy of all out attacks on Shia Arab Iraqis didn't work, and angered many Sunni Arabs because they lost people as well. Even attacks on U.S. troops were a failure. The Americans were hard to kill, fought back with terrible effect, and many of the roadside bombs used went off in Sunni Arab neighborhoods. That was because the guys planting the bombs were less likely to be betrayed to the police in Sunni Arab areas. But when the bomb went off, the terrorists often did not warn nearby Sunni Arabs (because that would tip off the Americans, who were quick to pick on the meaning of no civilians along a stretch of road.) When Sunni Arab leaders asked Zarqawi to back off, Zarqawi went after the Sunni Arab leaders. That led to open warfare between Sunni Arab tribes and al Qaeda, with the terrorists losing. This, more than anything else, led to Zarqawi's demotion.
@ Last month, U.S. troops captured Zarqawi lieutenant Mohammed Hila Hammad Obeidi. This guy was, like many of the terrorists, a former intelligence officer for Saddam. Obeidi was believed responsible for kidnapping of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena last year, and organizing an assassination campaign against government officials. Obeidi is one of over a dozen key al Qaeda leaders captured or killed in Iraq during the past year.
@ Last year, al Qaeda boasted that they were going to establish a "liberated zone" in western Iraq. This is a thinly populated (mainly by pro-Saddam Sunni Arabs) area. A series of American offensives in the area kept al Qaeda groups on the run, and the local Sunni Arabs unimpressed with the ability of the terrorists to fight. Then Zarqawi's tactics turned the Sunni Arabs against al Qaeda, and by early 2006, most of western Iraq was lethally unwelcome for the terrorists. Sunni Arabs were openly welcoming the Americans.
@ You can't beat the trends. After three years of boating of big victories just around the corner, the Arab world has resigned itself to the fact that al Qaeda is all smoke and no fire. No one can deny that most Iraqis hate al Qaeda. Big time. This has become accepted wisdom throughout the Arab world. All the things al Qaeda promised to do (expel the Americans, stop elections and the formation of a democratic government, and so on) they have failed to do. No one likes a loser.
@ Al Qaeda is having a lot of trouble recruiting. No one wants to join a losing team. There are more Iraqi terrorists fleeing to Saudi Arabia, than are coming north to join the jihad. There are still volunteers coming over from Syria, but many more are getting caught, or turned in by Sunni Arabs who live along the border. The Americans are paying bounties for terrorist border crossers, and Sunni Arabs see this as a justifiable source of income.
On the down side, the gangs are still conducting an unprecedented crime wave. This got started during the 1990s, as the UN sanctions left more and more Iraqis unemployed, and desperate. Even Saddam could not halt the growing crime wave. Months before he was overthrown, Saddam opened the jails and freed thousands of the criminals he had not killed yet. It's still not clear why he did this, but it gave the crooks time to get organized, because after Saddam fell, the Sunni Arab secret police and organized street thugs, who kept the gangsters at bay, were gone. It's been gangster heaven ever since. While there are more and more police on the streets, and jails are filling up with more hoodlums than terrorists, the crime rate is still very high.
The corruption in the government is still a big problem. While there are billions of dollars in oil money and foreign aid coming in for reconstruction, Iraqis still see a lot of stealing. Then again, Iraqis are at least admitting that this is not the fault of the Americans. It's Iraqis stealing from Iraqis, and Iraqis have to solve this one.
The corruption has made politics more complicated than it has to be. Political differences are not as divisive as is the competition for key government jobs that give you the best opportunities to steal public money. The squabbling over which party gets what has prevented the new parliament from putting together a new government. It's inefficient, and embarrassing. And it's Iraqis doing it to Iraqis. This is very unpleasant for most Iraqis.
Religious zealots are often as bad as the gangsters, with their demands for "contributions," and physical violence against those who are not "Islamic enough." Iraqis know that they are descended from the people who first made beer and wine. Despite Islamic laws against alcohol, Iraqis like to enjoy a cold beer, or something stronger. But not if the Islamic lifestyle police are in the neighborhoods.
The corruption among so many Iraqi politicians, and maintenance of private armies, means that, while Saddam is gone, there are still Iraqis who would like to replace him as dictator. Democracy isn't something you just put on like a coat, and it works. You have to work at it, and while many Iraqis are, there are many more who would like to bring back the bad old days, just with a different cast of characters.