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Monday, April 19, 2010 

Iraq, the insurgency, and the death of Omar al-Baghdadi.

To get an indication of just how many times it's been claimed that either Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, now apparently positively identified as Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the two key leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, more properly known now as the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, have been killed or captured, you could do worse than look at my post from April last year commenting on the apparent arrest of, err, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The Iraqi government claimed at the time that it was definitely al-Baghdadi, or al-Zawi, but today's press conference by none other than Nouri al-Maliki himself, along with the usual tasteful images of the corpses of those killed, and the approving comments from Joe Biden, suggests that this time they actually have been assassinated.

If the insurgency in Iraq was in decline in April of last year, buffeted both by the surge but far more effectively by the Awakening councils, which both revolted against the Sharia law based tyranny which the "Islamic state" imposed on the areas under its control, as well as its fratricidal nature, turning on other insurgent groups which it had once worked alongside, then a year on the position for the most extreme group of jihadis is even worse. It has to be remembered that at the height of its power, al-Qaida in Iraq, as it was relatively briefly properly known, had all but a stranglehold on the "Sunni triangle", control of major parts of Baghdad, and tentacles stretching right up to the northern city of Mosul. While it is probably still the most active Sunni insurgent group in the country, it has now been reduced down to a rump, forced back into a few remaining strongholds, and able only to carry out the multiple, coordinated suicide bombings it became infamous for, especially in Baghdad, mercifully, on far fewer occasions.

The reasons for this are not just that the Iraqi security forces have been increasingly growing in strength, coupled with the surge and Awakening councils, but also that the stench of defeat has been in the air ever since the insurgency turned decisively against the "Islamic State" back in 2008. While the other Sunni insurgency groups, especially the Islamic Army, prided themselves in being wholly Iraqi in origin and were mainly nationalist in ideology, the "Islamic State" depended on foreign jihadis to make up the majority of their willing suicide attackers, or as jihadists prefer to call the result, martyrdom operations. Compared with other areas where the jihad appears to going relatively well, such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia, Iraq suddenly doesn't seem to be such an attractive proposition. Fighting what appears to be a lost cause, even if the end result is still the much yearned for martyrdom, discourages potential jihadis across the board.

Likely to be seen as the leading cause of the eventual downfall of what had been by far the most successful al-Qaida "franchise" was that al-Zarqawi's notorious brutality left the Islamic State with few allies, almost all of whom were absorbed into the "State" itself, but dozens of enemies. His determination to foment a civil war, by declaring all but total war on the Iraqi Shia, symbolised by the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, apparently even caused Ayman al-Zawahiri himself to blanch. After his own death at the hands of the Americans, rather than change strategy, the leadership of the now formed "Islamic State" continued with the suicide bombings and sectarian killings, as well as imposing the strictest form of Sharia law on the areas they controlled and finally, turning on the erstwhile insurgent allies who had helped them into the position of strength they had at the beginning of 2007.

Just as al-Zarqawi's death did nothing to stop the insurgency, the killing of both main leaders of the "Islamic State" is hardly going to stop it dead in its tracks. Far more effective has been the political process itself, with the number of Sunnis voting in the elections earlier in the year, having mainly boycotted the vote back in 2005 vastly increased. If the US Army is to be believed then Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi in any case was only an attempt by al-Qaida central to give the "Islamic State" an Iraqi face, al-Masri being an Egyptian protege of al-Zawahiri and the State's true leader, identified previously as the State's war minister.

Just as al-Zarqawi was replaced, so will Masri and Zawi. The problem remains to be the Salafi jihadi ideology itself and the narrative which it provides, not the leaders that espouse it, however important bin Laden and Zawahiri have been in the past and will remain. The ultimate victory of 9/11 was not that it was a spectacularly successful attack, but that the Americans and ourselves walked straight into the trap of permanent potential involvement in Afghanistan, and as it seemed for a time, Iraq as well, radicalising a whole new generation in the process. The battle remains against the ideology itself, which we are still nowhere near being able to counteract effectively, just as much as it is those preaching it.

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