Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as part of the Muhajideen Shura Council, just declared an Islamic Iraqi State in the Sunni parts of Iraq, to be run on jihadist foundations, in a tape posted on an internet forum and later broadcast on al-Jazeera. The declaration came in direct response to the passage of the federalism law, which many believe will lead to the Shia going the way of the Kurds. This declaration has received oddly little attention in the US media (short accounts can be found in the New York Sun, and AP in the Washington Times and the IHT). Odd, since the main justification in the Bush administration's latest
salvo of Iraq defenses (along with the need to prevent a civil war, which has arrived without our departure) was the (absurd) claim that if the US withdrew,
al-Qaeda would establish a Caliphate in Iraq. Seems they've gone
ahead and done so, without even waiting for the US to leave. Shouldn't that be news?
But the declaration of the Iraqi Islamic State hasn't exactly rallied Iraq - or even the Sunni community, or even the rest of the insurgency - to al-Qaeda's side. According to al-Hayat, other major Sunni groups, including those active in the insurgency, have denounced al-Qaeda's move as counterproductive and irresponsible. Even some major Islamist factions of the insurgency have dissented, and the jihad discussion boards are filled with considerable confusion and disagreement about the move. Reports that Jaysh al-Islami rejected the declaration and called on its followers to declare loyalty to Saddam and Ibrahim al-Duri seem to have spread particular anxiety and confusion.
In part, this reflects the tension between al-Qaeda, which wants the US to stay and bleed, and the mainstream insurgency which really does want the US out. A number of insurgent groups reportedly denounced al-Qaeda's move, which they see as harming the prospects of the insurgency defeating the occupation. Nahid Hattar, a Jordanian commentator who quite admires the Iraqi insurgency, blasted al-Qaeda in Iraq yesterday, claiming that al-Qaeda was working in the American interest. The noble insurgency, he writes, seeks a unified Iraq free of foreign occupation, while al-Qaeda seeks to divide Iraq (by fomenting Sunni-Shia civil war) and provides the US with an excuse to stay.
This tension also reflects the interest of most of the Sunni leadership to keep Iraq united, as well as the simple fact that al-Qaeda in Iraq really is a very small number of people who are often rather unpopular among even the Sunni community. (It was ridiculed in Gulf News - who declares a state on the internet?) Those rejecting the call to an Islamic Iraqi State include tribal leaders, politicians, and other figures who support resistance to the American occupation (as they call it) but have little interest in creating a new Islamic state.
Al-Hayat reports that the Iraqi government is viewing this as a chance to sway this Sunni leadership to their side. But that seems unlikely: it comes at almost the same time as wide swathes of the Sunni leadership have pledged loyalty to Saddam Hussein during a meeting in Kirkuk. Saddam, who likely faces the death penalty just in time for the American Congressional elections, just dictated an open letter to Iraqis declaring that victory was nigh, and today denounced communal violence in an open court session (rich, coming from the guy who butchered Kurds and Shia for decades).
Maybe all of this is a PsyOp. Reasons to think so include this, from the AP: "The authenticity of the eight-minute video, which was posted on a Web site commonly used by insurgents, could not immediately be verified. The insurgent group brings Sunnis "good news of the founding and the formation of the Islamic Iraqi State ... to protect our people," said a man identified in the video as the group's spokesman who wore a traditional Arab robe and had his face blocked out by a white circle."). Coming on the heels of the Abu Usama al-Iraqi video, the authenticity of which seems weak indeed, makes this one look suspicious as well (and al-Arabiya, at least, is grouping the two tapes together which looks bad). But if it is a PsyOp, it's a darn good one, and has fooled a lot of people on the ground and in the jihadi discussion forums.
Whatever the case, Iraqi officials are expecting even more violence in the wake of the declaration. All of this is happening dizzyingly fast, in the context of a civil war rapidly escalating out of control. I'm not even sure what I make of it all. I think that these events, to this point, support the contention I've made repeatedly that an Iraqi Caliphate is a phantom menace: no al-Qaeda state is likely simply because almost no Iraqis, even Sunnis, want one. At the same time, the simple fact that al-Qaeda is going ahead and declaring such an Islamic Iraqi State - in spite of the US presence and in spite of the democratically elected government - seems to deserve more attention than it has thus far received.
Quick update, since there seems to be some confusion- I do not think that the "Iraqi Islamic State" declaration is a 'hoax', in the sense that it isn't actually happening. While the provenance of the tape originally released on
the internet remains suspect, the declaration of an Iraqi Islamist
State is obviously being taken seriously by actors on the ground, and
is provoking sharp reactions for and against in most of the online
forums I follow. Who released it and why remains in question, though. As a matter of principle, I think that the question of provenance has to be asked of every development of this kind, given the escalating centrality of information warfare in both al-Qaeda and American and everyone else's strategy. But asking the question does not assume the answer. In this case, the "Iraqi Islamic State" declaration has emerged as a real political issue, and that's what now matters.