In his second speech of the year, the Amir of the al-Qaeda-allied Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, has criticized President Obama’s Iraq plan as deceitful and announced a new military campaign entitled “The Good Harvest” (al-hanein.info, March 17). The campaign is designed to combat an American-Iranian alliance al-Baghdadi calls “the Crusader-Magian Coalition” (Magian refers to the main pre-Islamic religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism, thus implying the Shi’a Islam practiced in Iran is a form of paganism). Baghdadi’s March 17 speech is the ISI’s official response to President Obama’s February 27 speech entitled; “Responsibly Ending the Iraq War.”
Al-Baghdadi sets out to achieve two objectives with his speech. First, he denigrates President Obama’s plan for Iraq as the continuation of President Bush’s policies with the intent to erode local and regional support for the American plan and to present the ISI as the last line of defense against U.S. plans in Iraq and the region. If locals grow disappointed with President Obama’s policies in Iraq, then al-Baghdadi hopes to capitalize on that disenchantment. Second, al-Baghdadi offers an apology for the ISI’s past mistakes to entice all Sunnis to take part in the ISI’s “Good Harvest” campaign.
Al-Baghdadi conveys his disdain for the newly elected U.S. president by referring to him as a “house slave,” a phrase first coined last November by al-Qaeda’s number two, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication is that the new president will not change U.S. policies in the Middle East because, like “domestic slaves” who can only serve their masters, President Obama will remain beholden to past policies. To drive his point home, al-Baghdadi argues that the President has already recanted on his electoral promise; while candidate Obama promised to withdraw from Iraq within sixteen months, President Obama now proposes staying for three more years.
Throughout his speech, al-Baghdadi labors hard to tie President Obama’s policy to that of George Bush, hoping to erode the new president’s good standing in the Middle East and put the ISI in a position to capitalize on the eventual disenchantment if Obama’s policies fail. Al-Baghdadi thus calls the phased withdrawal a “deception” and argues that only “the silly and naive will accept that our land be under occupation and our dignity be insulted for three coming years under the pretext of a gradual withdrawal.” He argues that the proposed withdrawal timetable is not a significant change, as it “will ensure the long duration [of the occupation] with less casualties and a dimunition in costs materiallly, militarily and morally…” He accuses the new President of looking at Iraq with the same rosy glasses that President Bush did. Obama “continued the series of lies launched by his criminal predecessor, claiming that his army achieved an extreme success…”
Al-Baghdadi also contends that Obama’s description of Iraq as a sovereign state is conspicuously wrong. He argues that Iraq’s political landscape is still dominated by the “State of the Cross and ally of the Jews” (i.e. the United States) and portrays the Shiite and Kurd parties that dominate the national polity as posing an existential threat to Iraqi Sunnis. By portraying the Sunnis as the victims of a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that has failed to make concessions to the religious minority, al-Baghdadi stokes the fears of Iraqi Sunnis who have lost a great deal of political clout in the new Iraq and have not seen their political grievances seriously addressed by the Government of Iraq. Sunni insurgents who successfully turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and helped greatly in reducing the level of violence in the last two years still remain by and large a low-paid auxiliary security force, with little hope of becoming integrated into the Iraqi security forces. Constitutional reforms sought by Sunnis remain unaddressed. By reminding Sunnis that their government has not seriously addressed their grievances and by inferring that sectarian forces seeking the political marginalization of Sunnis still dominate national politics, al-Baghdadi hopes to encourage Iraqi Sunnis to identify the ISI as their only defender.
After the diagnosis, Baghdadi offers a remedy in the form of the “Good Harvest” military campaign, which is scheduled to succeed the “Plan of Dignity” campaign, launched in January 2007 in response to the U.S.-led surge in Baghdad. The Plan of Dignity, says al-Baghdadi, has succeeded since the U.S. government has now agreed to withdraw its forces from Iraq. This new campaign, according to al-Baghdadi, has been carefully crafted to respond appropriately to the current strategic dynamic. Al-Baghdadi urges all Muslims to see the complexity of the plots waged against Islam in Iraq, implying that unity in the ranks of the insurgents is necessary to fight against U.S. plans. He also offers a rare acknowledgement that the ISI made mistakes in the past, but argues it is time to “put all problems in the past.”
Al-Baghdadi’s call for Iraqi Sunnis to participate in this new ISI-led campaign sounds both contrite and conciliatory; “We have only one condition, which is: to be a Muslim seeking for the rule of the Shari’a of Allah and the consolidation of His religion on the method of Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a.”  This is a drastic change. As soon as it was formed in the fall of 2006, the ISI tried to coerce other factions to come under its leadership. The group also tried to enforce a strict behavioral code according to its rigorous interpretation of Islam in the areas it dominated. By requiring that people who join in its new campaign be only Muslims “seeking the rule of Shari’a” following the “method of Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a,” al-Baghdadi lays out broad general requirements that can be adhered to by many Sunnis beyond the borders of the ISI’s traditional audience.
Within a few days, al-Baghdadi’s call seemed to resonate with his fellow jihadis. On March 21, the Amir of the Ansar al-Sunnah, a small insurgent group aligned with Islamist-nationalist forces in Iraq, responded publicly and favorably to al-Baghdadi’s invitation. In a rare speech entitled; “The Best Harvest,” Amir Shaykh Abu Wa’il saluted al-Baghdadi for trying to heal the rift between insurgent factions in Iraq and warned that if disagreements between jihadist factions persist, it will lead to “the empowerment of another enemy,” a barely veiled reference to Iran (Media Office of the Ansar al-Sunnah Group Shari’a Commission, March 20).
1. The doctrine of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a (the people of the Sunnah and the community) refers to those who form the community that follows the “right path” set by the Prophet. The term highlights the importance of the unity of the community. All four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali) recognize the doctrine.