Undeclared civil war in Iraq has been raging for months. Now it’s “official”: using the customary audio clip on a website, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – who may or may not be a cipher, but is certainly the leader of Monotheism and Holy War, or al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers – has declared “all-out war” on Iraqi Shi’ites.

To prove it, he unleashed Black Wednesday – including a horrendous attack in the Kadhimiyah neighborhood in Baghdad, with at least 112 dead and more than 200 wounded, all of them poor, helpless Shi’ite construction workers, many of them enticed toward the killer with promises of jobs before he detonated his lethal load. Baghdad was paralyzed on Wednesday, trying to cope with more than 150 dead and more than 500 wounded in a string of coordinated attacks marking the bloodiest day in the country since the end of major combat two years ago.

According to the Zarqawi audio, “The al-Qaeda Organization in the
Land of Two Rivers [Iraq] is declaring all-out war on the Rafidha, wherever they are in Iraq.” Rafidha is the pejorative Arabic term referring to Shi’ites as apostates. “As for the government, servants of the crusaders headed by [Prime Minister] Ibrahim al-Jaafari, they have declared a war on Sunnis in Tal Afar.” So, following Zarqawi’s logic, the civil war against Shi’ites is a response to what happened in Tal Afar.

Tal Afar is a poor northern town in the middle of the desert whose majority population of roughly 200,000 is 70% Sunni Turkmen and 30% Shi’ite Turkmen. Just as former prime minister Iyad Allawi was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Fallujah, current prime minister Jaafari ordered what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Tal Afar.

Tal Afar revisited

Yet one more heavily hyped Pentagon/Baghdad production yielded no box office results – for obvious reasons. The Salafi jihadis, reportedly a couple of hundred, who were holed up in Tal Afar easily melted away, like the fish in Mao Zedong’s pool of resistance. And the “pool” itself – most of the civilian population – turned into a stream of refugees. The operation was doomed to failure from the beginning because the Iraqi “army” involved consisted basically of Kurdish Peshmerga militias supported by local Shi’ite Turkmen informers. They may be Turkmen, but they are allied with Sunni Arabs.

Once again, the Sunni Arab Salafi jihadis got away by using classic guerrilla tactics: while the Pentagon/Jaafari armory was chasing shadows in empty Tal Afar, they mounted spectacular, deadly, highly visible attacks against Shi’ites in Baghdad, the heart of power.

So the pattern is always the same. The Baghdad/Pentagon axis unleashes massive, highly publicized repression – in Fallujah, in Tal Afar (many times over), in Qaim near the Syrian border, soon in Ramadi (it has been already announced); the Salafi jihadis melt away and later regroup.

The palpable effect is always the same, as University of Michigan professor Juan Cole suggests: de-urbanization of the Sunni Arab heartland. In other words, ethnic cleansing. Yet it’s folly to believe that the Pentagon/Jaafari axis will be able to depopulate or destroy every major Sunni city opposed to the new, emerging Shi’ite-Kurd majority in power. Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers has fully capitalized on the matter. The voice on the Zarqawi tape warns Sunni Arabs to “wake up from your slumber … the war to exterminate Sunnis will never end.”

Who profits from all this? Certainly al-Qaeda in Iraq, with its agenda of keeping permanent chaos and anarchy. But also the Pentagon – as undeclared (and now declared) civil war is the perfect excuse for an indefinite American military occupation. In the long run, this ghastly state of affairs will profit “the crusaders” – in Zarqawi lingo – those hawks in the Bush administration who dream of the breakup of once-unified Iraq into a Kurdish north, a southern “Shi’iteistan” (both swimming in oil and allied with the US) and an enfeebled, dried out Sunni center.

What does al-Qaeda want?

“Zarqawi” – cipher or not cipher, performing or not performing miracles with just one leg and a US$25 million bounty on his head – has caused tremendous havoc since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in October 2004 , when his network adopted its current denomination, al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-Rafidayn) and Osama bin Laden recognized him as the jihadi-in-chief in Iraq in a December 2004 audiotape.

The long-term strategy of al-Qaeda in Iraq is not Jordanian, like Zarqawi himself: it is dictated by the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda. The strategy has been spelled out in a series of documents supervised by Sheikh Yussef al-Ayeeri. The most strategic of these documents is called Iraq al-jihad, awal wa akhtar (The jihad in Iraq, hopes and dangers).

It’s all there: centralized resistance in Sunni Arab cities and villages; close collaboration with Saddam’s former Mukhabarat intelligence officers; attacks against other members of the coalition to isolate the Americans and the new Iraqi defense forces; keeping an atmosphere of chaos at all costs; and crucially disrupting by all means the flow of oil. Another point of the document is now becoming clear: the setting up of jihadi networks in the Shi’ite south capable of protecting Sunni minorities in case of civil war – a de facto situation with the escalation of sectarian killings.

Last month in Amman, Jordan, Asia Times Online came across a book by Fouad Hussein, an Amman-based journalist who has shared jail time with Zarqawi. The Arabic-language book, “Al-Zarqawi – al-Qaeda’s Second Generation,” aims to detail nothing less than al-Qaeda’s strategy toward establishing an Islamic caliphate before 2020. The key source that lends credence to the book is Saif al-Adl.

Mohammad Ibrahim al-Mekkawi, aka Saif al-Adl, a colonel in the Egyptian armed forces, was the former number two of the Egyptian al-Jihad and an instructor in al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. He became al-Qaeda’s military chief after Palestinian Abu Zubayda al-Filastini was arrested. In late 2001, he managed to flee from Afghanistan and found refuge in Iran. The US offers $5 million for his head. Iranian diplomats refuse to admit on the record that al-Adl is in the country, although they admit they hold a number of al-Qaeda operatives.

In his book, Hussein uses his personal knowledge of Zarqawi as well as privileged information passed to him by al-Adl, including heated debate between bin Laden and Zarqawi, to uncover what would be the master plan of global jihad. The book has received extensive coverage in the Persian-language Iranian media and has been analyzed very seriously in Tehran.

Hussein lists seven crucial stages. The first, dubbed “the awakening” (of the Muslim world), has already happened: from September 11 to the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. The second stage is dubbed “opening eyes”: it involves al-Qaeda blossoming into a movement (it is already an idea), with Iraq as its headquarters; it should last until 2006. The third stage, dubbed “Arising and Standing up,” should last until 2010, with a focus on jihad inside Syria, and increased attacks on Turkey, Jordan and Israel. All these stages make sense when confronted with the progression of facts on the ground.

Then it gets fuzzy. The fourth stage lasts until 2013 and it involves the total defeat by al-Qaeda of all Western-supported Arab governments, as well as a series of attacks against the global flow of oil and sophisticated cyber-terrorism designed to debilitate the American economy. The fifth stage is the proclamation of an Islamic caliphate between 2013 and 2016 – as Western interference in the Arab world should be by this time reduced to a minimum. The sixth stage, starting in 2016, will be “total confrontation,” with an “Islamic army” fighting infidels all over the world. And the seventh stage, to be completed by 2020, should be nothing less than the triumph of the caliphate.

The year 2020, by the way, is the date former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad set for Malaysia – a moderate Muslim nation – to become a fully developed, globally integrated country, ie the total antithesis of the al-Qaeda utopia. It is also the date many economists believe will mark the point when China’s economy will become the world’s number one – and would have taken decisive steps to free itself from dependence of Arab oil, striking major supply deals with Iran and Kazakhstan.

Hussein in his book lists these seven stages as the field manual for global jihadis. He interprets – correctly – the attacks on Manhattan, Madrid and London as just a means to an end: provoking a paranoia about security in major Western capitals as one of the privileged tools in building up the Islamic caliphate. The problem is Hussein regards “al-Qaeda” as a centralized brain delivering instructions: that’s not the case since Tora Bora in late 2001, with “al-Qaeda” becoming a nebula, a virus constantly mutating with lethal speed.

The idea of al-Qaeda reenacting a caliphate in the whole Islamic world, Shi’ite Iran included, may be seen by Westerners, Asians and moderate Muslims alike as an absolute lunacy. But Franco-Lebanese historian Ghassan Tueni considers “bin Laden’s utopia, as monstrous as its form reveals,” as steeped in history, “a morbid rejection of one century of defeat and impasse, with plenty of frustration and humiliation.”

Utopias can become deadly. Up to now, the Bush administration’s “war on terror” has done nothing to puncture the myth. Four years after September 11, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri – both apparently alive and well – continue to inspire Salafi jihadis with their iconic status, while “Zarqawi” causes increasing havoc in Iraq.