This report in the TimesOnline, by Richard Beeston, really caught my attention.
ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI, the most feared commander in the Iraqi insurgency, may have been forced to surrender his leadership by rival groups, angered by his bloody tactics and the interference of foreign fighters in the Iraqi conflict.I was wondering how long it would take. al-Zarqawi has been committing a mortal sin in the Muslim world - the public execution of hostages.
That, combined with fomenting violence between Iraqi Muslim sects, could not possibly go down well with the leaders of any of the jihadis.
According to Huthayfah Azzam, the son of Abdullah Azzam, al-Zarqawi's former mentor, the notorious commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq was stripped of his political duties at a meeting two weeks ago.Even the Times has had difficulty confirming this, but al-Zarqawi's actions, both politically and militarily, have been well over the line, even for some of the more violent jihadis. Regardless of what the average Iraqi feels toward the US occupation of their country, there would be little sympathy for the tactics of the former Jordanian. The more devout Muslims would view his actions as a gross insult to Islam while the more secular Iraqis would consider his actions to be completely without honour.
"The Iraqi resistance high command asked al-Zarqawi to give up his political role and replaced him with an Iraqi because of several mistakes," said Mr Azzam in an interview with al-Arabiya, the Arabic news channel. "Al-Zarqawi's role has been limited to military action," he said.
The first hint that he had become too extreme even for al-Qaeda came in a letter written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No 2, which was sent to al-Zarqawi last summer and warned the 39-year-old Jordanian to change his tactics.Al-Zarqawi was also responsible for the suicide attacks in Amman, Jordan which killed 60 people. Among them were the celebrants of a Palestinian wedding. While Arab fighters understand the effect of collateral damage, that particularly murderous attack was viewed as unnecessarily bloody and one which could only incite hatred amongst the population. In fact, none of the approximately 24 jihadi organizations commented in favour of the attacks. Most condemned them and several prominent Arab tribes disavowed support for al-Zarqawi. His own family disowned him.
In the letter, which was intercepted by the Americans and made public, al-Zawahiri tells his young protege that executing victims and posting the images on the internet had earned him the title "Sheikh of the Slaughterers".
"Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who support you will never find acceptable are the scenes of slaughtering hostages," the letter said.
Al-Zarqawi, never really "joined" al-Qaeda. In fact, he and Osama bin Laden were quite regularly at odds over strategy. As Iraq started to become the focus for the Jihad in 2004, al-Zarqawi sent a letter to Osama offering al-Qaeda a chance to expand into Iraq. The letter was intercepted by the Kurds and released by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in February 2004. The last paragraph contains a line which, when read in an Arab sense, demonstrates total independence from al-Qaeda.
We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you, and we have never striven to achieve glory for ourselves.That does not show subservience or deferrence. It is the kind of language one Arab leader uses when addressing another - sometimes an equal.
What is not known is whether Osama ever responded. Given the contents of the letter, and al-Zarqawi's continued reference to the Shi'a as little more than heathen scum, it is unlikely Osama would have accepted. Al-Zarqawi would consider the killing of Shi'a Muslims, (whom he says are collaborating with the enemy), equivalent to exterminating rats; Osama views the Shi'as as recoverable apostates: misguided, but still Muslim and still entitled to his positive attention.
In any event, al-Zarqawi's association with al-Qaeda was always limited and the strategy laid out in the Osama letter was one with which Osama would have strongly disagreed. Nonetheless, al-Zarqawi proceeded with his plan and it is easy to overlay his plan onto the events which subsequently overtook Iraq.
If, however, al-Zarqawi has lost his position of favour then two questions arise. What is al-Zarqawi doing now? And, who is leading the insurgency in Iraq?
The simple answer is that little has changed. Al-Zarqawi, while losing political influence, still has a large military following and it is not in his nature to give up and walk away. His decision to use Iraq as the battleground for his jihad was based on the vulnerability of the country immediately after the US occupation. While he may have lost the support of al-Qaeda, his strategy was always in conflict with that group's ideology.
Al-Qaeda's direct involvement in Iraq was probably not as great as has been publicly broadcast by US authorities. The removal by al-Qaeda of al-Zarqawi as their "agent" in Iraq makes him that much more dangerous. Considered a loose cannon even amongst some jihadist organizations, he is now a loose cannon without supervision. Even if al-Qaeda and Iraqi jihadis attempt a different strategy, al-Zarqawi is still pursuing his.
The oft made Bush administration claim that they are fighting the same terrorists in Iraq that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the US has always been less than honest. The al-Zarqawi - Osama letter suggests that al-Qaeda was never in Iraq and, if there was actually an agreement, that they "contracted out" to al-Zarqawi.
With al-Zarqawi operating freelance, Iraq just became a much more dangerous place.