While most Americans remain focused on the UAE port controversy, sectarian violence continues to flare in Iraq. The AP estimates that at least 122 Iraqis have died since Tuesday's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. More fighting is expected in the days ahead, as Shiites exact their revennge on Sunni terrorists, whom they blame for the attack.
The MSM is filled with dire predictions of Iraq lurching toward a civil war, but it's far too early to make such an assessment. Despite the spike in violence, some of the demonstrations--especially those outside Baghdad--have been relatively peaceful. Additionally, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spirtual leader of Iraq's Shia majority, has been urging calm and restraint, despite the bombing.
You'll notice that one faction in Iraq has been remarkably quiet since the blast in Samarra. That group is Al-Qaida in Iraq, and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. More than a few analysts see Zarqawi's hand behind the bombing, and I tend to support that assessment. If Zarqawi's terrorists weren't directly responsible for the attack on the Golden Mosque, they were almost certainly complict, providing training, logistical support and other assistance to the bombers.
If Zarqawi was behind the bombing, then it was tantamount to a "Hail Allah" play from the terrorist handbook. Until this week, the insurgency in Iraq was on a noticeable downswing; the number of "effective" IED attacks had dipped below 10%, and according to Pentagon statistics, the number of U.S. casualties declined in Iraq in 2005. Meanwhile, the Iraqis continue to make significant progress in building a democratic government, and playing a greater role in securing their nation.
And, the overall picture for Al-Qaida was equally bleak. In its annual assessment of the global terror threat, a British firm described the "base" organization and its leadership, as a "largely spent force," and predicted that Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would be killed or captured by the end of the year. In other words, Zarqawi could expect little help from his bin Laden and the remnants of his organization, which remain preoccupied with survival, despite bold statements in recent taped messages.
Against that backdrop, Zarqawi needed a bold gambit that would promote sectarian violence, and help achieve one of his primary goals--triggering a civil war that would plunge Iraq into chaos. Bombing the Golden Mosque satisfied that requirement, although it will probably fall short of sparking a civil war. A widespread conflict between Sunnis and Shia would also give Zarqawi something of a breather; with U.S. and Iraqi security forces concentrating on civil unrest, there would be less time (and fewer resources) in the hunt for Zarqawi and his network. Under that scenario, Al-Qaida in Iraq could capitalize on the violence and emerge as an even greater threat.
But Zarqawi's strategy also carries grave risks. If the Samarra bombing could be linked to Al-Qaida, Zarqawi's support in Iraq would further erode, something his terror network can ill-afford. That's why (IMO), the U.S. will miss a major opportunity in the information war if we don't highlight the likely connection between Zarqawi and the bombing of the Shia shrine. Much of our recent military and intelligence success in Iraq is the result of better information from ordinary citizens, increasingly fed up with the "outsiders" who bring death and destruction to their country. Using information operations to connect Zarqawi to the Samarra attack--based on solid evidence--would turn his tactical success into a strategic defeat, and further undermine the insurgency.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has long-standing problems in countering enemy propaganda and information operations. I found this article in an Air Force journal, written more than five years ago, which describes some of our difficulties in overcoming Serb propaganda during Operation Allied Force. It's a bit long, but take a glance, and see if you find any similarities between what happened in 1999, and what we see in Iraq today.
Until we understand that all forms of public information are a battlespace that must be contested and defended, we will face an uphill battle in winning the struggle for hearts and minds. In football, "Hail Mary" or if you prefer, "Hail Allah" plays should have a low probability of success. Zarqawi's desperation heave in Samarra can also be deflected, if we use all the tools at our disposal, including information operations.