Deadly Embrace
How much of the war on terror is blowback from U.S. policies?

Reviewed by Fawaz A. Gerges
Sunday, October 21, 2007

SUICIDE BOMBERS IN IRAQ The Strategy and Ideology Of Martyrdom

By Mohammed M. Hafez | US Institute of Peace. 285 pp. $17.50

A POISONOUS AFFAIR America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja

By Joost R. Hiltermann | Cambridge Univ. 314 pp. $29

MERCHANT OF DEATH Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

By Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun | Wiley. 308 pp. $25.95

The new Iraq has set a world record, not in the rapid construction of democracy, but in suicide bombings. Since the American-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has suffered nearly 1,000 suicide attacks, more than double the number carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel, combined. The majority of these attacks targeted Iraqi security forces and Shia civilians, not coalition troops.

As Americans contemplate this morass, one of the saddest questions is whether it is partly "blowback" -- intelligence jargon for what goes around, comes around. The fact that the United States once backed Osama bin Laden and other jihadis against the Soviets in Afghanistan is well known. But three new books, and my own recent experience, suggest that there are other kinds of blowback in the war on terror, some of them little recognized.

Far from "draining the swamp" of terrorism, as U.S. architects of the war had hoped, the new Iraq imports suicide terrorists and exports bombing techniques, most notably to Afghanistan, where insurgents are now copying the improvised explosive devices that have proved so devastating to U.S. forces in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.

The old Iraq, though a place of stunning brutality and repression, never saw suicide terrorism and shunned al-Qaeda's ideology and tactics. But in the last 15 months, I have interviewed scores of Arab and Muslim teens all over the Middle East and Europe who say they want to join the fight against the American "occupiers." They say their local clerics tell them stories about atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers and instruct them that jihad is an individual obligation. These teenagers -- whom I met in the Gulf states, Lebanon, Palestinian refugee camps, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Spain, France and Italy -- are trying to raise several hundred dollars each to make their way to Iraq through Syria. Most have no previous connection to Islamist militancy or al-Qaeda, but many talk about sacrificing themselves in "martyrdom operations."

In Suicide Bombers in Iraq, Mohammed Hafez seeks to understand what drives such men and, in rare cases, women. He believes they are mainly non-Iraqis, though he warns that it is impossible to reach firm conclusions about where, precisely, they come from, what motivates them and how recruiters have mobilized so many in a short time. "It is not clear who is carrying out most of the suicide attacks in Iraq," he admits.

The uncertainty is widely shared. Analysts worldwide have been unable to arrive at a useful socioeconomic or psychological profile of suicide bombers in Iraq. Some are from poor families in developing countries such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Morocco and Pakistan, while others come from affluent homes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, England and Italy. They are educated and uneducated. The bulk seem to be in their teens and 20s, but more than a few are in their 30s to 50s. And while some bombers have had previous links to violent activism, for others the suicide attack is their first (and last) offense. The only consensus among analysts, Hafez says, is that suicide bombers are not simply crazy or born violent.

A small bit of good news is that al-Qaeda in Iraq and its ideological allies face growing indignation from fellow Sunnis fed up with the toll on Muslim civilians. Last month, one of bin Laden's most prominent Saudi mentors, the preacher and scholar Salman al-Odah, wrote an open letter reproaching him for "fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families." Similarly, in early October Abdulaziz Al-Ashaikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa prohibiting Saudis from engaging in jihad abroad and accused Arab regimes of "transforming our youth into walking bombs to accomplish their own political and military aims."

The bad news is that the United States faces greater challenges in Iraq than suicide terrorism, insidious as it is. Hafez estimates that suicide bombers and other internationalist, ideological jihadis represent just 5 percent of all Iraqi insurgents. The overwhelming majority of fighters are Iraqi nationalists who eschew suicide bombing and deploy Islam as the vocabulary of resistance; their goal is to shift the balance of power in favor of Sunnis and to force U.S. troops to leave.

Joost R. Hiltermann, a former Human Rights Watch investigator who is now with the International Crisis Group, traces America's current predicament to its collusion with Saddam Hussein during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and America's silence over his repeated use of chemical weapons.

Hiltermann's A Poisonous Affair is a chilling account of the gassing of Halabja, a village in Iraq's Kurdish region, in March 1988 and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaign known as Anfal ("The Spoils"), in which some 80,000 Kurdish civilians were driven from their homes by poison gas, hauled to transit centers, sorted by age and sex, and carted off to execution sites in Iraq's western desert.

In the early 1990s, Hiltermann and his colleagues at Human Rights Watch pieced together the Anfal story from captured Iraqi documents, declassified U.S. reports and testimonies of survivors. Hard as it tried in those years, the non-governmental organization could not mobilize the international community to bring a charge of genocide against the Iraqi regime at the International Court of Justice.

A Poisonous Affair explains that, having recovered territories lost to Iraq in the early 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran's supreme leader, went on the offensive against his nemesis, Saddam Hussein. Khomeini sent vast numbers of barely trained young infantrymen against Iraqi lines, and the Iraqi leadership saw poison gases -- first mustard gas and later more potent, insecticide-related formulas -- as the most efficient way to stop the human-wave attacks.

According to a CIA analysis cited by Hiltermann, Iraq employed chemical weapons "on a scale not seen since World War I" and became the first nation ever to use nerve agents in battle. Still, the United States sided with Saddam Hussein. Though officially neutral, Washington began sharing intelligence data on Iran's battle plans and provided Baghdad with economic aid. Arms poured into Iraq from the West as well as from the Soviet Union. And the Reagan administration opposed a U.N. investigation of Iran's allegations that Iraq had used chemical weapons.

Hiltermann explores America's multiple motives. U.S. officials were still angered by the Iranians' seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and determined to prevent Khomeini from exporting his Islamic revolution. But then, as now, there were other factors: The Reagan administration hoped to co-opt Iraq, through "constructive engagement," into backing Arab-Israeli peacemaking and ending its assistance to radical groups, particularly Palestinians. Oil supplies and business opportunities for U.S. companies also loomed large, Hiltermann notes. To reassure Iraq of U.S. support, the administration's most influential messenger, Donald Rumsfeld, made two trips to Baghdad in the early 1980s and presented the Iraqi dictator with a gift of golden spurs.

Thus, in Hiltermann's account, the die was cast for Iraq's expanded use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and its own Kurdish citizens, whom the regime accused of collusion with the enemy. The main chemical offensive came in the spring of 1988 -- first against a Kurdish rebel headquarters in the Jafati valley, then at Halabja, then on the first day of every stage of the six-month Anfal campaign. Instead of condemning the gassing, the Reagan administration labored to get Saddam Hussein off the hook. A Poisonous Affair shows clearly that U.S. policymakers knew Iraq had gassed Halabja but instructed American diplomats to cast partial blame on Iran. By Hiltermann's persuasive account, the United States sacrificed universal norms at the altar of Cold War calculations and short-term gain, a choice that set the stage for America's current deadly embrace with Iraq as well as for Iran's quest to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The possibility of blowback also looms large in Merchant of Death, a riveting investigation of the world's most notorious weapons dealer, Viktor Bout, whose post-Cold War arms network has stoked violence worldwide. Although U.S. intelligence officers have tried for years to shut down Bout's operation, Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun reveal that the United States paid firms linked to him as much as $60 million to ferry weapons to the U.S. military and private contractors in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Senior U.S. policymakers may have been unaware that Bout was among the war profiteers. But even after newspaper reports about his activities in Iraq, mid-level U.S. officials in Baghdad allowed his suspected airplanes to continue to land at U.S. air bases and even to fill up on military fuel for free, rationalizing their decision on the need to get supplies to Iraq quickly. "We have an old saying in the Marine Corps," one officer says in Merchant of Death. "If you want it bad, you get it bad."

Farah, a former Washington Post reporter, and Braun, a Los Angeles Times correspondent, call the episode "a textbook case of shoddy postwar planning and bureaucratic blindness." But after reading Suicide Bombers in Iraq and A Poisonous Affair, it's hard not to see it as more than that. Like Washington's support for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, dealing with Viktor Bout is a decision that the United States may regret for years to come. *

Fawaz A. Gerges is professor of international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy" and "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."

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