Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Zarqawi - Man of the Year for 2006? (Andrew Sullivan)

Was the the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, self-styled head of "al-Qaeda in Iraq" until his death in June 2006, a strong candidate for "the title of the person who most influenced world events in 2006." Well, I'm not so sure. But as Andrew Sullivan correctly points out, there is at least a prima facie case to be made on his behalf.
But if one person deserves the title of the person who most influenced world events in 2006, my vote goes to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was killed on June 7, but he had already achieved the goal of his lifetime as a thug-for-God. The most critical event of 2006 was, in my view, the February bombing of the Samarra mosque. It was the spark that transformed Iraq from a fledgling democracy with a Sunni-Qaeda-Baathist insurgency into a vortex for untrammeled sectarian civil war.
One could quibble with some details of this formulation (for example, to say that in January 2006 Iraq was on its way to becoming "a fledgling democracy" is probably a bit over-optimistic). But the essential picture that Sullivan presents here is undeniable. The destruction of the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra in February 2006 was almost certainly the work of Zarqawi and his organization. And in retrospect it is clear that this bombing, which produced a self-reinforcing wave of sectarian reprisal killings by Sunnis and Shiites in Arab Iraq that continue to spiral out of control, proved to be a crucial turning-point that may well have wrecked any remaining hopes for a decent post-Saddam reconstruction of the country.

It is worth remembering what made this bombing a "critical event." At least since early 2004, the coalition of Ba'athists and Islamist fanatics at the core of the Sunni Arab "insurgency" had been pursuing a systematic strategy of murdering Iraqi Shiites--ranging from major religious and political figures through government employees and professionals to indiscriminately targeted ordinary people--in order to detonate a full-scale sectarian civil war that would render the country ungovernable. (See Some thoughts on the terrorist strategy of the Iraqi 'insurgency'.) But it took a long time for this strategy to succeed--one could even argue that it took a surprisingly long time--a key reason being that the mainstream Shiite political and religious leadership made frantic efforts to prevent reprisals against Sunni Arab civilians. Meanwhile, on no less than three occasions between January 2005 and December 2005 millions of Iraqis braved terrorist violence to vote in two national elections and a constitutional referendum (even the impeccably anti-American journalist Robert Fisk, who bitterly opposed the 2003 Iraq war, could not help being moved by the spectacle and by the "immense courage" of the Iraqis who came out to vote).

All that was derailed by the destruction of the Askariyah Shrine in February 2006. It accomplished what years of indiscriminate mass murder of Shiite civilians had not accomplished, and finally pushed the Shiites over the edge (thus helping to confirm, once again, the insistence by Durkheim and others on the crucial significance of the powerful collective symbols in shaping the dynamics of group identity and collective action). The human and political catastrophe that has unfolded since February also has regional and even world consequences that go well beyond Iraq.

Of course, this socio-political explosion would not have happened without a whole range of background conditions that took a while to build up and for which Zarqawi himself couldn't claim exclusive credit. But Zarqawi's role in actually setting off this explosion was conspicuous and decisive enough that he deserves, at the very least, to symbolize it. As I noted back in June 2006 (Who--and what--was Zarqawi?):
A number of observers have pointed out, correctly, that foreign jihadists like Zarqawi seem to make up only a small proportion of the people actively involved in the so-called "insurgency" in Iraq, which is clearly a loose coalition of elements ranging from Iraqi fascists and home-grown Iraqi Islamist fanatics to ordinary Sunni Arabs who are most interested in expelling the Americans and restoring Sunni Arab supremacy in Iraq. However, this overlooks the fact that those foreign jihadists, epitomized by Zarqawi and his organization, have played a key role in many of the most horrific and effective dimensions of the insurgency. These include suicide bombings (in which the people who actually blow themselves up appear to consist overwhelmingly of foreign jihadist volunteers); the massacre of the UN mission in Iraq, which drove the UN out of the country and discouraged other governments and international organizations from getting involved in the reconstruction of Iraq; the kidnappings and beheadings of foreign workers, technicians, and journalists; the assassinations of important Shiite leaders like Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim ; and, above all, the campaign of indiscriminate terrorist murder of Iraqi Shiite civilians, including attacks on mosques and shrines and religious festivals, which has brought Iraq to the verge of all-out sectarian civil war.
And the human and political catastrophe that has unfolded in Iraq since February also has regional and even world consequences that go well beyond Iraq. So this theocratic fanatic and mass murderer did indeed play more than a walk-on role in shaping world politics in 2006.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
Andrew Sullivan
January 2, 2006
Man of the Year 2006

This is not a criticism of the judgment of Time magazine in its selection of "you" as the person of the year. Far be it from me to rain on your 15 seconds. And I, for one, welcome the unerring judgment of my newish corporate overlords. But if one person deserves the title of the person who most influenced world events in 2006, my vote goes to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was killed on June 7, but he had already achieved the goal of his lifetime as a thug-for-God. The most critical event of 2006 was, in my view, the February bombing of the Samarra mosque. It was the spark that transformed Iraq from a fledgling democracy with a Sunni-Qaeda-Baathist insurgency into a vortex for untrammeled sectarian civil war. This was Zarqawi's goal, and it seems to me in retrospect that he succeeded beyond measure. It may well be that the onset of a regional war between Shia and Sunni will not, in the end, advance the cause so beloved of Zarqawi. But for a monster like Zarqawi, what mattered was his enactment of what he saw as God's will in his lifetime. Zarqawi's God was as hostile to Shiites as to infidels, perhaps even more hostile to Shiites. And he died a martyr for such a God. His final success makes it all the more depressing that the Bush administration had a clear shot at killing him in 2003 and balked. The awful combination of Islamist evil and Republican incompetence struck again. Sadly, I see few signs of either part of that equation shifting.

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