June 12, 2006

Dispatches from the Asylum: All Propaganda, All the Time

I well understand that, especially at moments of national and military triumph so overwhelming in their scope and magnificence that mere mortals cannot even begin to comprehend them, pitiable facts are a highly unwelcome intrusion. The myths that sustain us in our delusions must themselves be maintained, and the myths underlying endless war and destruction are the most tenacious of all.

Nonetheless, let us take a few moments to consider several of Patrick Cockburn's observations about the meaning of Zarqawi's death, and what it might signify for the future of the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq. I am not naive, and I also recognize that Cockburn is singularly ill-suited for this purpose: he has spent many years living in and reporting from the Middle East, and he actually knows what he's talking about. Given the requirements for being granted a leading role in our national discourse, the possession of relevant knowledge immediately disqualifies one from participation.

You therefore should feel free to disregard the following in its entirety. Perhaps a commentator like Tom Friedman is more suited to your tastes. Friedman has been consistently, relentlessly wrong about everything. Moreover, Friedman is admirably and extraordinarily conscientious in his refusal to recognize even one of his errors, and believes that his time is far better spent in vilifying and marginalizing those who would dare to point out his mistakes, and their calamitous costs. In the race to destroy the few remaining vestiges of intelligence in our national debates, always having been wrong makes one especially well-qualified to serve as an expert with regard to what we should do now and in the future. If others happened to be right and, even worse, if they were right for provable reasons which were also correct, well, that only demonstrates their nefarious, ugly motives and that they are not to be trusted on even a single point.

I suppose this description might cause a few of you to wonder if you are living in a hospital wing devoted to the care of those who have suffered irreparable cognitive damage. Or perhaps it simply makes you think of an insane asylum. You would not be far from the truth -- but in this case, the hospital wing or asylum stretches the length of a continent.

With these severely limiting reservations in mind, let us listen to Mr. Cockburn:
In the days before he was tracked down and killed by US laser-guided bombs Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was living with almost no guards and only five companions, two of whom were women and one an eight year old girl.

US military were yesterday displaying the few tattered possessions of Zarqawi and those who died with him in the rubble of an isolated house half hidden by date palms outside the village of Hibhib in Diyala province north east of Baghdad.

The ease with which Iraqi police and US special forces were able to reach the house after the bombing without encountering hostile fire showed that Zarqawi was never the powerful guerrilla chieftain and leader of the Iraqi resistance that Washington has claimed for over three years.


The only resistance encountered by black-clad American commandos was from local Sunni villagers in the village of Ghalabiya, near Hibhib, who thought the strangers were members of a Shia death squad. Villagers who were standing guard fired into the air on seeing the commandos who in turn threw a grenade that killed five of the guards. American regular army troops later came to Ghalabiya to apologise and promise compensation to the families of the dead men.

The manner in which Zarqawi died confirms the belief that his military and political importance was always deliberately exaggerated by the US. He was a wholly obscure figure until he was denounced by US Secretary of State Colin Powell before the US Security Council on 5 February 2003. Mr Powell identified Zarqawi as the link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein though no evidence for this was ever produced.

Iraqi police documents were later discovered showing that Saddam Hussein's security forces, so far from collaborating with Zarqawi, were trying to arrest him. In Afghanistan Zarqawi had led a small group hostile to al Qa'ida. Arriving in Iraq in 2002 he had taken refuge in the mountain hide out of an extreme Islamic group near Halabja in Kurdistan in an area which the Iraqi government did not control.

Over the last three years Zarqawi has had a symbiotic relationship with US forces in Iraq. After the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 Zarqawi was once again heavily publicised by US military and civilian spokesmen as the preeminent leader of the resistance. His name was mentioned at every press conference in Baghdad. Dubious documents were leaked to the US press. The aim of all this from Washington's point of view was to show that by invading Iraq President Bish was indeed fighting international terrorism.


It is not clear how far American or Iraqi government statements about how they located him should be believed. It appears unlikely that he was having meeting with his lieutenants, as was first suggested, given that only two other men died with him.

There are already signs that in propaganda terms the US military--as well as the media--is missing Zarqawi as a single demonic figure who could be presented as the leader of the resistance. A US military commander was already saying last week that Zarqawi's most likely successor was Abu Ayyub al-Masari, an Egyptian born fighter trained in Afghanistan whom it is claimed came to Baghdad in 2002 to set up an al Qa'ida cell.

The myth of Zarqawi, which may originally have been manufactured by Jordanian and Kurdish intelligence in 2003, was attractive to Washington because it showed that anti-occupation resistance was foreign inspired and linked to al Qa'ida. In reality the insurgency was almost entirely homegrown, reliant on near total support from the five million strong Sunni community. Its military effectiveness was far more dependent on former officers of the Iraqi army and security forces than on al-Qa'ida. They may also have helped boost Zarqawi's fame because it was convenient for them to blame their worst atrocities on him.


The killing of Zarqawi is a boost for the newly formed government of Nouri al-Maliki, but Iraqis noticed that when announcing it he stood at the podium between Gen George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, and Zilmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador. "It showed the limits of Maliki's independence from the Americans," noted one Iraqi commentator. "It would have been better if they had let him make the announcement standing alone."

In the wake of Zarqawi's death Maliki was able to announce that the names of his new Interior Minister Jawad Khadim Polani and Abdul Qadr Mohammed Jassim as Defence Minister. Both are obscure figures but also former members of the Iraqi army opposed to Saddam Hussein. They will have difficulty getting control of their own ministries.

Maliki has said privately that his biggest problem is that his cabinet consists entirely of ministers who are the representatives of different parties. They were only appointed after rancorous negotiations. He cannot dismiss them however disobedient, incompetent or corrupt they may be. Each minister uses his or her ministry as a fiefdom to be exploited for patronage and money.

By the time he died Zarqawi's list of enemies included the US, the Iraqi government, many of the Sunni tribes and insurgent leaders. The biggest surprise surrounding his death last week was that it took so long to happen.
Cockburn has more.

I realize this may be profoundly dispiriting, and I apologize. The fantasies and myths are much more familiar, and infinitely more comforting. I'm certain "democracy" and "freedom" are about to break out across the Middle East. I can see it now, just around the corner at the end of that tunnel. And pay no attention to the corpses and broken bodies that continue to pile up.

Futile, needless, utterly unjustifiable death and suffering are only facts - and fantasy overwhelms facts almost all the time nowadays.