Iraq: Tradition, Religion and the Endless War

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September 19, 2007: Last week, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was killed by a roadside bomb in western Iraq. The sheikh was the leader of the Sunni Arab tribal coalition that had joined the government to fight al Qaeda, and other Islamic terrorists, in Anbar (western Iraq) province. Al Qaeda quickly took credit for killing the sheikh. The friends and allies of the sheikh were not intimidated, and vowed vengeance. A few days later, following a strip of tips, Iraqi and American commandos arrested several members of the al Qaeda cell that claimed to have killed the sheikh. This included the leader of the cell, a notorious and much feared terrorist. Al Qaedas problem here was that, having killed hundreds of tribal elders and leaders, in an attempt to intimidate the tribes, they failed to note that the terror approach was not working.

Before al Qaeda came along, the tribes had suffered decades of terror from Saddam and his bloodthirsty city slickers (the Baath Party). Two years ago, the tribes began resisting the Islamic terrorists, and al Qaeda did not have the manpower, or fire power, to come down on the tribes like Saddam used to do. Moreover, the tribes lost their fear of Saddam before 2003. In the early 1990s, during the Shia uprising in the south, Saddam came to the Anbar tribes for help. The deal was simple. In return for that aid, Saddam would pay the tribes in cash and favors. This included autonomy, plus a free hand with smuggling and other traditional tribal pursuits. The tribes were upset when Saddam was overthrown, for they lost a benefactor and sugar daddy in Baghdad. The new government that eventually got elected was run by Shia and Kurds, two groups that never got along with the Sunni tribes, and owned them nothing. In 2004, al Qaeda cut a deal with the tribes. Support al Qaeda terrorist attacks against the government and the Shia, and a new Sunni government will return the good old days of tribal subsidies and other perks. When some of the tribal leaders began to question the killing of so many Moslems by those suicide bombs, al Qaeda responded with threats, and, eventually, murdering the critics. This eventually escalated into the current tribal war against Islamic terrorists.

This is a pattern that has played out in this region many times before. Extremists assure all that desperate times call for desperate measures. When the mass murder turns out to solve nothing, there is a violent reaction. Things quiet down for a few generations, then it happens again. The main problem, corruption and inability for form a civil society (as in the West) is guaranteed to bring back the violent revolutionaries. Many Iraqis recognize this pattern, and realize that the West has found a solution. But the traditionalists, especially the religious ones, want none of it. There are many who are willing to die for discredited (at least by historical experience) ideas. So what if a religious dictatorship doesn't work (you have Iran next door to prove that), we want to carry out Gods will.

The war on terror, and the war in Iraq, are all part of a struggle within Islam. Do we keep on with the same pattern of rebellion and repression, or do we try something better. Until that dispute is settled, the war will go on.

 

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