Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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March 24, 2003

Two Wars, One Battlefield: The New Jihad is Called in the Iraq War

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Analyst, GIS. By mid-March 2003, by the time the armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom finally launched the long-anticipated campaign against Iraq in the context of the US-led war on terrorism, the US, the UK and a few allies had already been engaged in an undeclared and largely clandestine hostilities against Iraq for more than half a year. Under the guise of enforcing the no-fly zones, the US and the UK had been conducting an escalatory air campaign against Iraqi military infrastructure. Special forces of the US, UK, Israel and Jordan had been roaming the Iraqi deep interior, collecting intelligence and conducting special operations to further debilitate Iraq’s military capabilities.

Intelligence operatives from the US, Iran, Turkey and other countries, meanwhile, trained, prepared, and armed their respective Iraqi proxies, as well as deployed their own units into strategic areas inside Iraq. Throughout, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq embarked on hectic preparations for the coming war, ranging from a thorough reorganization of the country’s defense establishment, to deploying the armed forces and other security forces in order to meet the perceived challenges. As well, Iraqi intelligence expanded the training and equipping the terrorist élites of bothOsama bin Laden and Yasir Arafat with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for striking out at the heart of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, as well as Western Europe.

The United States’ war is aimed to eliminate the mounting threat which Saddam Hussein’s Iraq constitutes. Washington’s warranted sense of urgency is dominated by the latest developments in the Iraqi support for Osama bin Laden’s élite terrorist forces, enabling them to strike anew at the heart of the US, as well as increasingly destabilize the Middle East, a region of vital importance for the United States. Moreover, the marked revival and rejuvenation of Iraq’s WMD programs in recent years reached a stage Iraq is once again capable of credibly threatening the entire Middle East, thus creating strategic posture adverse for the US.

That Saddam Hussein has been a thorn in the side of official Washington for more than a decade, as well as a symbol of the unfinished business of the Bush family, only added impetus to expedite the decisive confrontation with Iraq. Indeed, US Pres. George W. Bush does not conceal the personal aspect of the enmity toward Saddam Hussein, repeatedly referring to him as “a guy that tried to kill my dad” during a 1993 visit to Kuwait. And while the initial battlefield achievements of the US and UK forces are impressive, the global reverberation of their actions is far reaching.

For the entire Muslim world, however, the US’ war with Iraq has far greater significance and far wider connotations. Theirs is not a war for the defense of Saddam’s Government but rather a phase in a divine recurrence of Islam’s historic struggle against the Mongol-Tartar invasion of the 13th Century: a series of events starting with calamity and ending in the surge of jihadist Islam and an unprecedented spread Islamic power. In 1258, Baghdad — the capital of the Caliphate and the center of Islamdom — was occupied and destroyed by Mongol-Tartar forces under Hulagu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. The Mongol-Tartar advance westward was blocked in 1260 by inferior Islamic army in the battle of Ayn Jallout (in the northern parts of today’s Israel). Significantly, the Islamic victory was achieved in a series of ambushes and irregular warfare in the aftermath of a routing by the Mongol-Tartar army in frontal conventional battle. The subsequent decades of fighting led to the emergence of the Jihadist ideology and its most important proponent - Ibn Taimiyah (1262-1327).

In recent months, as the war with Iraq seemed inevitable and imminent, Muslim theologians and scholars from all branches of Islam have been referring to the legacy of the tumultuous 13th Century as the key to interpreting current events. In early February 2003, Osama bin Laden stressed in his secret message the significance of “Ibn Taymiyyah’s description of the situation today, written several hundred years ago” to the formulation of the jihadist doctrine for confronting the US-led West. For Ahmad Al-Sayyid Taqiy-al-Din of al-Azhar University (Islam’s most important institute of higher learning and scholarship), the dramatic turn of events between the sacking of Baghdad and the triumph in Ayn Jallout “kept for the Nation of Islam its existence and entity and restored its lost dignity”.

In an opinion published on March 1, 2003, he stressed that “now, seven and a half centuries later, the Tartars of globalization are confronting us. The armies of evil are standing on the doors of Baghdad demanding the same thing, which Hulagu had demanded after they have spread terror and destruction in Afghanistan and threatened to punish the world unless it supports their evil policy”. Pakistani-Afghan scholar Husain Haqqani, in a February 12, 2003, article, took Islam’s argument even further, stressing the relevance of the historic lessons to the prevailing percepts throughout the Muslim World:

“While Colin Powell probably has never thought about this episode in history, Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida have both referred to the 1258 sacking of Baghdad in recent statements. The allusion is significant for true believers and for those who seek to defy rather than coexist with and learn from unbelievers. For militant Islamists, the military defeat and humiliation at the hand of the Mongols marked the beginnings of a religious revival. In less than a century, the Mongol conquerors had converted to Islam and Islamic power, uprooted from the Arabian heartland, had been re-established in Turkey and Northern India. Islamist movements are already arguing that the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the coming sacking of Baghdad should be seen as cataclysmic events that would purify Muslim souls and prepare them for an ideological battle with the West.”

Significantly, the Arab institutional establishment and ruling élites strongly endorse the obvious conclusions of these observations. On March 7, 2003, in a Friday Sermon delivered in Doha, Qatar, Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi, the most influential Imam among the Arab World’s ruling élites, issued a fatwa on the “impermissibility of using Arab and Islamic airports, seaports and lands in helping attack Iraq”. He declared it was “fard ain” [obligatory on all Muslims without exception] to confront the US invaders wherever they were irrespective of the policies of their governments. “If the enemy invades a Muslim country, all its inhabitants must rise and rally to kick him out of their country,” al-Qaradawi decreed. “If the people in the country are able to repulse the aggression, then it is a bliss. If they are unable, that duty shifts to that country’s Muslim neighbors and so on.”

On March 9, 2003, the Islamic Research Academy of the al-Azhar al-Sharif [the Holy] (the uniquely most important legislative body of the Muslim world) issued a formal fatwa, making jihad compulsory for all Muslims in a war on Iraq. “Jihad becomes fard ain if theUnited States launches war on Iraq. The Arabs and Muslims have to be fully prepared to defend themselves, their faith and their lands, and to forget all differences so that they would not weaken before the expected aggression on the Islamic world,” al-Azhar’s fatwa reads. The fatwa formally dispels Washington’s insistence that the war will be limited to reversing the threat posed by the Saddam Hussein Administration. “Insistence on hitting Iraq is but a prelude to other blows targeting the rest of the Arab Homeland. The proof is provided by what the forces hostile to Islam and the Arabs have announced about their intention, after controlling Iraq, to re-divide and rearrange conditions in the Arab region in a way that serves American and Israeli interests and finishes off the Palestinian people’s resistance.”

Indeed, the entire Arab world took notice for the impact of these Fatwas was dramatic. For example, Ahmad al-Tayib, the Government-nominated Mufti of the Egyptian Lands, publicly warned the Mubarak Government against “the provision of facilities for the invading American forces to aggress on the brotherly Iraqi people”. He stated that \ldblquote Islam does not permit this at all, in addition to demanding that the Nation stand up to the US invasion attempt against Iraq. Concurrently, a call to arms message was circulated among the Islamist activists in the Muddle East: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. An Urgent Alert. To all the jihadists fighting for the sake of Allah in the Arab Peninsula, the infidel Zionist American enemy has come to you and reached the depth of your land to contaminate the Arab Peninsula. He stands face to face with you now, and death will befall him, God willing. Charge towards him and start your mission. May God be with you.” The message is signed by “Abu Khattab speaking on behalf of Sheikh Osama Bin Laden’s soldiers”.

Thus, while the US public focused on the US-led preparations for a war with Iraq in order to disarm Saddam Hussein, the entire Arab and Muslim world has been actively preparing for completely different crises and wars.

And while the US is studying the character of a post-war Government in Baghdad, the Muslim world is preparing for a fateful jihad over the shape of the post-war world. Consequently, the ensuing fighting in Iraq, as well as the concurrent Islamist terrorism and subversion, will be more than just a clash of arms. For all participants — whether cognizant of the fact or not — this will be first and foremost a total war, a fateful clash of civilizational-religious visions of, and aspirations for, the future of the respective civilizations and peoples. The ramifications of this clash already exceed far beyond the confines of the battlefields of Iraq.

Ultimately, this profound difference in the definition of the war will have a decisive impact on the conduct and reading of, as well as lessons derived from, not only the Iraq war but mainly the next phases of the long, and still far from over, war on terrorism.