CAIRO, Egypt – Osama bin Laden has vowed to turn Iraq into the front line of his war against the United States, but Iraqi insurgents seem worried that he’s out to hijack their rebellion.
At times, the Iraqis and foreign Muslim militants seem to be competing. Media reports and Web statements have speculated that a Saudi carried out the Dec. 21 suicide bombing of a U.S. mess tent in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul that killed 22 people. But Ansar al-Sunnah, the homegrown group that took responsibility for that deadliest of attacks on a U.S. target in Iraq, named the bomber as Abu Omar of Mosul, a nom de guerre that pointedly claims him as an Iraqi.
Earlier this month, a posting on Ansar al-Sunnah’s Web site told foreign militants to stop coming. The group, which defines itself as both nationalist and Islamic, said it needed money, not more recruits.
“We have concrete information that a sharp division is now broiling between” Iraqis waging a nationalist war and foreign Arabs spurred by militant Islam, said Mouwafak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi government’s national security adviser. “They are more divided than ever.”
Al-Rubaie said one reason was the perception among Iraqis that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whom bin Laden endorsed as his deputy in Iraq, was of little help during the American onslaught on the Iraqi insurgent hotbed of Fallujah in November.
“Al-Zarqawi and his group fled Fallujah and let the Iraqis face the attack alone,” al-Rubaie said in a telephone interview.
Some Iraqis may have drawn parallels between the debacle in Fallujah and what happened to Afghanistan (news – web sites) after it became bin Laden’s headquarters.
Since Saddam Hussein (news – web sites)’s regime was overthrown by the American-led war in April 2003, insurgents including foreign fighters have waged a guerrilla war aimed at forcing out U.S. troops. The Iraqi interim government says it has detained more than 300 foreign fighters, among them men from almost every Arab country.
Some streamed into Iraq shortly before the war, invited by a desperate Saddam. Muslim militants are believed to be behind some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
In a 33-page address last month, bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire-turned-terrorist, called for turning Iraq into an Islamic state that would eventually be part of a worldwide Islamic empire.
In the same message, though, he may have angered insurgents loyal to Saddam by calling the toppled president “a butcher” and “a tyrant.” And naming a Jordanian as his deputy in Iraq would not have sat well even among Iraqis who share bin Laden’s militant vision of Islam.
Bin Laden’s message also scoffed at plans for Iraqi elections, saying democracy was un-Islamic. But Iraqi groups including Sunni clergy that had earlier called for boycotting the Jan. 30 vote now say they want to participate if a timetable is set for U.S. withdrawal.
“Bin Laden’s problem is that he is far away from reality, he is a daydreamer. He is even blind,” said Shadi Abdel Aziz, a Cairo University professor and author of “Continuity and Change in bin Laden’s Thought.”
Abdel Aziz said bin Laden’s key mistake is to ignore that “people always put their national and personal interests first.”
“In this part of the world people have several identities, Islam is only one of them and it does not necessarily come first,” he said.
Bin Laden’s problem in Iraq seems similar to what he faced in Afghanistan after the defeat of Soviet troops. While bin Laden wanted to follow up with a worldwide war on those he saw as Islam’s enemies, some of the warlords who became Afghanistan’s new rulers wanted the Arab fighters out.
Al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, was an Islamic activist in his youth, but believes bin Laden-style Islam will fail to take hold in Iraq.
“They failed in Egypt, which is a more homogenous society, and they failed in Afghanistan when they had a state,” he said. “How can they win here with all this religious and sectarian diversity?”