Juan Cole: McCain and the Myth of al-Qaeda in Iraq





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

I am quoted in this NYT piece today on John McCain's allegations that the US is fighting"al-Qaeda" in Iraq and that there is a danger of"al-Qaeda" taking over the country if the US leaves.

Those allegations don't make any sense. McCain contradicts himself because he sometimes warns that the Shiites or Iran will take over Iraq. He doesn't seem to realize that the US presided over the ascension to power in Iraq of pro-Iranian Shiite parties like Nuri al-Maliki's Islamic Mission Party and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. So which is it? There is a danger that pro-Iranian Shiites will take over (which is anyway what we have engineered) or that al-Qaeda will? It is not as if they can coexist. Since the Shiites are 60 percent and by now well armed and trained, how could the 1 percent of the 17 percent of the country that is Sunni Arab and maybe supports Salafi radicalism hope to take over?

Even if McCain only means, as his campaign manager tried to suggest, that"al-Qaeda" could take over the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, that doesn't make any sense either (McCain has actually alleged that al-Qaeda would take over the whole country.) The Salafi radicals have lost in al-Anbar Province. Diyala Province, one of the other three predominantly Sunni areas, is ruled by pro-Iranian Shiites. That leaves Salahuddin and Ninevah Provinces. Among the major military forces in Ninevah is the Kurdish Peshmerga, some of them integrated e.g. into the Mosul police force. Hint: The Kurds don't like"al-Qaeda", i.e. Salafi radicalism. Jalal Talabani is a socialist.

So the Shiites and the Kurds among the Iraqis, now more powerful than the Sunni Arabs, would never allow a radical Salafi mini-state in their midst. They would crush them. And substantial segments of the Iraqi Sunni population have already helped crush them.

Moreover, Shiite Iran, secular Turkey, Baathist Syria and monarchical Jordan would never put up with a Salafi radical mini-state on their borders. They would crush it. Jordan's secret police already appear to have played a role in killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who had his own"Monotheism and Holy War" organization that for PR purposes he at one point rechristened"al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" (he actually never got along with Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri).

McCain's whole discourse on Iraq is just a typical rightwing Washington fantasy made up in order to get you to spend $15 billion a month on his friends in the military industrial complex and to get you to allow him to gut the US constitution and the Bill of Rights. ...

At the moment no guerrilla group in Iraq even calls itself al-Qaeda. Zarqawi's organization appears to have collapsed in Ramadi with his death, which is a part of the story of the rise of pro-American 'awakening councils' there that no one mentions.

Here are the Open Source Center headlines about Sunni guerrilla activities in Iraq. These are found and translated by US intelligence:

' Ansar Al-Islam Claims Attack on Oil Tanker in Iraq

Al-Rashidin Army Claims 16 Apr Attack on US Hummer . . . ["The statement was attributed to Abu-al-Abbas Isa Bakr al-Iraqi, the Media Bureau, the Al-Rashidin Army, the Jihad and Change Front."]

Iraqi Armed Revolution Comments on Government Clashes with Al-Mahdi Army . . . [says"both sides want to seize power"]

Shield of Islam Brigade Claims Attack on Iraqi Forces in Baghdad

1920 Revolution Brigades Claims Attack on US Stryker Vehicle

Sa'd Bin-Abu-Waqqas Brigades Claim 3 Attacks on US, 'Enemy' Forces '

Note that the 1920 Revolution Brigades fights against the Islamic State of Iraq and some of its cells have joined US-backed Awakening Councils. None of these communiques mentions anything about"al-Qaeda" or Usama Bin Laden. Aside from the 'Islamic State in Iraq,' which seems to be a front for a small group of foreign fighters who have some local support in Diyala province, they are just Iraqi Sunnis, folks. A lot of them were in the Baath army six years ago. Opinion polling shows that a majority of Iraqi Sunnis says that a separation of religion and state is desirable, which is what you would expect from a population ruled by the secular Arab nationalist Baath Party for 25 years. The US has 24,000 or so Iraqis in custody but less than 150 foreign fighters. Doesn't that tell you something?

McCain can't come out and say we need to crush the Armed Iraqi Revolution, because that would be an admission that the US has been fighting Iraqis for 5 years and still hasn't defeated them. So he and the Republican strategists and the retired generals and their Pentagon handlers make up this"al-Qaeda" business, as though people in Baquba would be gunning for Americans if Americans hadn't invaded their country and turned it upside down.

It is the US military occupation of Iraq that is producing"al-Qaeda" wannabes, and if it is ended the Iraqis and their neighbors will polish those off tout de suite. Keep the military occupation going, as McCain desires, and you are running an incubator for terrorism against the US and its allies that has already produced hits on Madrid and the London Underground.

In other words, elect McCain, my friends, and you are summoning the awful genie of another 9/11. I said it. I mean it. I'm not taking it back. That man's announced policies could well produce a blowback that will lead to the end of democracy in the United States. It is a momentous decision.



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Tim Matthewson - 5/3/2008

Al-Qaeda has not been able to produce a major terrorist attack in the past six years and the reason has been a concerted effort on the part of the FBI, CIA and other global intelligence gathering organizations to disrupt and destroy Al-Qaeda. Support for Islamo fascism has collapsed in the Arab world, not only because of its activities, but also because it is anti-modern and treats women like property. It's only terrorist successes have been attacks mainly in Arab countries that have not been directed against the US but against moderate Arab Muslims who are friendly to the US. But John McCain is so closely tied to the Bush administration that he cannot afford to say that Al-Qaeda is not the major problem in Iraq and that it is the continued US presence in Iraq that has failed to achieve its objectives and indeed continues to promote anti-American feeling among the Iraqis.


omar ibrahim baker - 4/23/2008

Should McCain, or a Hillary/Obama Presidential candidate though less likely, come up with the proposition that the enemy in Iraq fighting the USA is the coalition of Al Qaeda/Iraq Communist Party and IRA +The Communist party of Nepal (Maoist) it, the proposition, will find enough takers, believers , advocates and marketers to keep it afloat as long as their nerve center wants it out and about!

US Presidential candidates abuse of the US electorate abysmal ignorance of , and disinterest in , foreign affairs enables them to claim whatever they feel like claiming no matter how outlandish, anti factual and counter logical it may be.

George W.'s very recent outright lies and fabrications found enough takers ,believers and defenders in the USA Senate and media, and still do, to encourage him to launch and sustain one of modern times most stupid (but hugely destructive) and counter productive wars for the USA (though NOT for Israel and/or Iran) of all times.

Well if George W. could get away with that with the USA Senate, McCain can surely get away with whatever he wants with the US electorate including a Qaeda, or Nepalese Communist Party, led anti USA insurrection in Iraq.
AND Halliburton &CO will enjoy every moment and every dollar of it!

That would surely epitomize best the universal tragedy of a USA dominated world!


Joseph Mutik - 4/22/2008

Local Islamic terrorist gangs organized explosions in Turkey and Morocco, in the last few years, where al-Qaeda was only a model and the terrorist enterprise was very local. There are lots of this kind of examples. There are no U.S. troops in Turkey or Morocco, the only reason for the terrorism is the fight against joining a world with western values. I took about 13 centuries for the Christian church to begin the reformation. Judging by this unit of time the Islamic religion is today quite close to a reformation movement. There is a big difference, though, in the 15th century took usually a month for a letter to reach its destination, today a message (written, verbal, still or moving picture) reaches its destination in a matter of seconds so we can suppose that the Islamic reformation process will be a lot shorter.
The main part of the Islamic reformation is about a sexual revolution. The Islamic men don't want to free the Islamic women. The main argument, used by Islam, is that the western world doesn't understand Islam, but in spite of irresponsible apologists of Islam, like Juan Cole, Islam is very well understood in the west. What Juan Cole and his ilk does is to justify Islamic violence against Islamic reformation. The Islamic violence against the Danish cartoons of Mohamed is a very good example.


Randll Reese Besch - 4/21/2008

Before the USA illegally invaded and occupied Iraq the Al-Qeada population was 0%. Now with the leverage caused by the invasion they have a tenous 5%.
All we are told by the corporate media is about Al-Qeada as if it is 95% of those against the invasion/occupation.A lie among so many to keep this WAR CRIME from being aknowledged as such & ended.
It is part of the larger sham as they try to hide the fact that it is the Iraqis who are against the occupation,upwards of 70%,but our so-called president claims he would leave if the Iraqis told him to. They have and he isn't. Not for a long time.Maybe McCain's 'joke' about staying for 100 years is indeed actual fact.
Unless the US military gets out of the cities and concentrates in the oil infrastructure they will all be targets. Though with the under reported heavy bombings by the USA on cities, towns and neighborhoods continue could keep the military responces down by the local militias. The USA will never have their stated version of winning for they know it won't happen and just use it as one of their many excuses to stay till the oil is gone.


N. Friedman - 4/21/2008

I am not writing to denigrate Professor Cole's opinion or to advocate that US forces remain in Iraq. I am merely exploring Professor Cole's argument.

Guessing what the future will bring to Iraq is very difficult. Professor Cole does not see an al Qaeda future for Iraq were the US to leave. That may be true. It is also certainly true that al Qaeda in Iraq suffered severe setbacks. And, it is certainly true that the seeming winners thus far in Iraq are the Shi'a.

Whether, of course, that means that such result is permanent is another matter. Consider:

First, Today's polling results in Iraq mean very little, even assuming that the results are accurate. This is because the views of a determined, violent minority can certainly overwhelm the views of the majority. Think Saddam.

Second, the fact that there are more Shi'a likely means very little - other than what group's representatives would most likely win an election were the country to vote, as is the habit in the Middle East, based on the individual's religious confession. After all, the Sunni ruled over the Shi'a for a very long time in Iraq notwithstanding being in the minority.

Third, even if Iraq's Shi'a could, in the abstract, maintain order in the country, would Iraq's Sunni neighbors accept Sunni rule as a permanent feature of Iraq? That is certainly difficult to say.

Fourth, how can we say with any confidence that Iraq's neighbors would not put up with a radical government in Iraq? Iraq's neighbors put up with a radical government in Iran. They put up with a radical government in Afghanistan until the US destroyed it. I think that the Professor's point that the countries surrounding Iraq would not put up with a truly radical government is a real exaggeration. They may not like the government. But, that hardly means they would act against it militarily.

Fifth, the fact that al Qaeda has gone underground in Iraq does not mean the group has vaporized. It may well be that the group is waiting for a more opportune time to advance its agenda.


In short, guessing what would be is a difficult job. Professor Cole is, I think, just guessing. That is not to suggest that the US should remain in Iraq. It is to suggest that the impact of a US withdrawal is not a simple one.


Tim Matthewson - 4/21/2008

Like bin Lauden, al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization and constitutes a small fraction of the Sunnis of Iraq and the Sunnis of Iraq are less than 17 percent of the Iraqi population. The prospective of them dominating Iraq is far from likely, especially following their numerous defeats at the hands of the Shiites following the Shiite revival of recent years. But like Bush McCain insists that the war in Iraq is part of the larger global war on terror. But this claim has not been credible for years. What is credible is the statement I heard on the TV show "30 Rock," which claimed that McCain has organized a Committee to Re-Invade Vietnam. I understand that he tried to get the Pope to make a donation to the Committee. But McCain dozed off during his meeting with the Pope and so the Pope accidentally administered Last Rites to the ancient hero of the Vietnam war.