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IRAQ - Has Al Qaeda Demoted Zarqawi?

The Saudi-owned Arab TV channel al-Arabiya last week quoted Huthayfah Azzam, son of Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Neo-Salafi mentor of both Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, as saying Zarqawi had been stripped of his political duties two weeks earlier due to concerns that his actions in Iraq were hurting the Iraqi insurgency's support in the Arab world.

Azzam said: "The Iraqi resistance high command asked Zarqawi to give up his political role and replaced him with an Iraqi because of several mistakes... Zarqawi's role has been limited to military action".

The fugitive al-Qaeda leader Zarqawi, who has a $25m American bounty on his head, is credited with masterminding some of the bloodiest episodes in the Iraqi war, including suicide bombings against the UN, Shi'ites and US forces and the videotaped execution of Western and other hostages. But his tactics have alienated many Iraqis, even those sympathetic to the insurgency.

Azzam, whose father was known as the "prince of the [Neo-Salafi] Mujahidin", said that he was accused of "creating an independent group" in Iraq, "making political mistakes" and hijacking the Iraqi insurgency for his own cause.

Al-Jazeera has reported that, among his "political mistakes", Zarqawi took it on himself to speak for the Iraqi people. Zarqawi is Jordanian, however, and thus not perceived as an appropriate spokesman for the insurgency.

Azzam said: "Zarqawi...took the liberty of speaking in the name of the Iraqi people and resistance, a role which belongs only to the Iraqis". As a result "the resistance command inside and outside Iraq, including imams, criticised him and after long discussions demanded that he be confined to military action. Zarqawi pledged not to carry out any more attacks against Iraq's neighbours after having been criticised for these operations which are considered a violation of shari'a [Islamic law]".

The first hint that Zarqawi was falling out of favour came in a letter sent to him last July by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's second in command in al-Qaeda. In the letter, which was intercepted by the US and made public, Zawahiri tells his young protege that executing victims and posting the images on the internet had earned him the title "Shaikh of the Slaughterers".

The letter said: "Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who support you will never find acceptable are the scenes of slaughtering hostages".

Then, in November, Zarqawi caused revulsion across the region when he orchestrated suicide bomb attacks against three hotels in Amman, killing 61 people, including guests attending a Palestinian wedding. Members of his own family, including his brother and cousins, publicly disowned him along with members of influential Arab tribes.

The Associated Press has reported that the backlash against the Amman bombings, which prompted even some of Zarqawi's fellow militants to call for a ban on civilian targets, was the key event leading to Zarqawi's apparent demotion.

In January, Zarqawi's group said in a Web statement that it had joined five other Neo-Salafi groups in Iraq to form the Mujahedeen Shura Council (consultative council of Neo-Salafi holy warriors).

Since then, Zarqawi's group has stopped issuing its own statements, a sharp contrast to its previous frequent postings, and Zarqawi has not issued a Web audiotape since January. Instead, the Shura Council has put out daily statements listing its "operations" including bombings of US Humvees and trucks, shootings of Iraqi Shi'ite security forces and assassinations of Sunni Arabs co-operating with the government.

AP notes, however, that the US military has called the report of Zarqawi's demotion "nothing we can verify", and that some experts say Zarqawi's role in insurgent attacks may have been exaggerated, either by his own group or by US and Iraqi officials. The insurgency is made up of several different groups, some of which "have been nearly as violent as al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq".

AP quoted Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister for intelligence affairs, as saying officials did believe that Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq had met with other insurgent groups in order to unify their efforts. He said it was possible that those groups may have "rearranged their ranks" and reassigned Zarqawi, adding: "After the losses they suffered in the west of Iraq and the popular anger against their presence, they could be trying to find an Iraqi facade".

Kamal did not recognise the name of the "new leader", Abdullah bin Rashed al-Baghdadi, and that it was probably a pseudonym. Kamal warned, however, that even if reports of Zarqawi's demotion were true, it did not mean that violence will decrease in Iraq.

News of Zarqawi's demotion came only a week after the US military said he had changed his tactics to target Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces, rather than coalition forces.

While monthly US casualties have been falling since November, attacks on Iraqi forces are escalating as Zarqawi attempts to undermine efforts to build up the army and security forces.

Ha'aretz has reported that Zarqawi had been recently tied to al-Qaeda efforts to inflitrate Gaza and attack Israel. A senior member of the Israel Defence Force told Ha'aretz: "We're not talking about gut feelings: The [rockets] fired on Shlomi and before that the [rocket] fire from Aqaba that hit the airport in Eilat were carried out by organizations affiliated with...Zarqawi's people in Iraq.

"The operational direction of these organizations is clear. They will try in the future to hit more Israeli targets".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:Apr 10, 2006
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