“Security is a shared destiny. If we are secure, you might be secure, and if we are safe, you might be safe. And if we are struck and killed, you will definitely – with Allah’s permission – be struck and killed.”
– Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the new al-Qaeda video The Correct Equation.

US President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address – apart from the amalgam of al-Qaeda and Iran in the same sentence – was a non-event in terms of a new strategy for the Middle East.

Bush said, “We could expect an epic battle between Shi’ite extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country [Iraq] – and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.”

Bush did admit that “we have been sobered by the enemy’s fierce reaction” in Iraq, adding that the war, with its sectarian fury, “is not the fight we entered in Iraq. But it is the fight we are in. It is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.”

With Bush offering nothing new, US and world public opinion might do well to focus on the state of the (dis)union in the heart of Islam. What the “enemy” is thinking has been personified by a video starring al-Qaeda’s No 2, Sunni Arab Ayman al-Zawahiri, and an interview by Iraqi Shi’ite nationalist leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Zawahiri, looking like a bearded Woody Allen in a slick, al-Sahab-produced, 14-minute-plus video with English subtitles, once again repeated what al-Qaeda has been stressing for years: if Islam is not attacked, the West won’t be attacked. He took great pains to stress that security is a “shared destiny” between Islam and the West. The White House hasn’t exactly been listening.

When Zawahiri taunts Bush to send the entire US Army to Iraq, it is not because he believes Arab mujahideen will pull a 1980s Afghanistan remix and “destroy the equivalent of 10 armies”. It’s because he knows Bush’s “surge” and “new way forward” multiply the quagmire while further enraging US public opinion. Al-Qaeda has already telegraphed many times that it would consider an unthinkable (what about the oil?) US withdrawal as an invaluable strategic victory.

Zawahiri’s geopolitical reading could not but be optimistic. He states the obvious: al-Qaeda is thriving again in Afghanistan, with Taliban offensives running rings around the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He knows al-Anbar province in Iraq is practically an al-Qaeda-secured emirate. So there’s plenty of room left in his address to regiment moderate Muslims and “Arab nationalists and leftists” and incite them to become jihadis in the name of pan-Islamism. There’s no guarantee moderate Muslims will be swayed. But “al-Qaeda” – the brand – is set to remain on a roll among poor, disfranchised Muslims on the peripheries of Islam, especially after the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

Paradise now for martyr Muqtada

Muqtada al-Sadr’s interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, published late last week – his first interview with a Western news medium in recent memory – was also tremendously enlightening. The core of his platform might place him close to Zawahiri: Americans out, now. But that’s where the similarities end. Both may be US Public Enemies 2 and 3 (assuming Osama bin Laden is still No 1). But al-Qaeda wants a Sunni Arab-dominated emirate in Iraq, while Muqtada wants a light, Shi’ite-dominated nationalist theocracy not submissive to Iran.

Muqtada regards Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – whom the Sadrists theoretically support in Parliament – as little more than a puppet (“I never trusted him”). He insists Maliki told him he was “forced to fight us.” But most of all he correctly evaluates that former interim prime minister Iyad “Butcher of Fallujah” Allawi is the Americans’ man, the new “Saddam without a mustache” who would be able, in Washington’s scheme, to pacify Iraq with an iron fist.

Muqtada is well aware he’s being hunted. He telegraphs that his Mehdi Army won’t oppose any resistance to the current Maliki-ordered sort-of-crackdown prior to the upcoming US surge/escalation/”new way forward.” And it makes total sense: after all, this is the sacred Shi’ite month of Muharram, which celebrates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Muqtada emphasizes that for a true believer, there could not be a better time to become a martyr: “Paradise is assured.” Next month – or a year from now, for that matter – is another story.

Muqtada meanwhile plays a clever game with Maliki. The Sadrists are back in Parliament, but with the promise of a formal timetable to be set in the next few months by the Maliki government for US withdrawal, and with any possible extension submitted to a parliamentary vote. This is a key point uniting the Sadrists and the Sunni parties.

Muqtada characterizes the 80,000-plus Mehdi Army as a free-flowing “popular army” – which is correct; this means it is porous, and infiltrated by all sides. There are at least two major, violent Mehdi Army splinter groups – the ones who may be acting as death squads. What Muqtada does not say is that he is more than happy to have these splinter groups being arrested by Maliki’s soldiers. At the same time, he’s confident that the majority of the Baghdad police are still Mehdi Army infiltrators.

The Mehdi Army’s core – better-trained soldiers loyal to Muqtada, currently lying very low – may be preserved. But Muqtada is also more than aware he may soon have to confront no fewer than four armies: a “shadow army,” trained in the Jordanian desert by the Americans; Allawi’s private goons, who are training “in the former Muthanna military airport”; the Kurdish peshmerga, who are coming to patrol Baghdad alongside the Americans; and the US surge.

Muqtada does not need to say that the Pentagon escalation could force up to 3 million poor Shi’ites (including more than a million kids under 14), who barely survive in the monster slum that is Sadr City, to become Sadrists – making the “surge” one of the most stupidest follies in the history of the Middle East. But he secretly fears that hundreds of thousands may perish under US bombs in the Battle of Sadr City.

Muqtada denied he was part of the Shi’ite lynch mob present at the hanging of Saddam Hussein: “The objective was to depict Muqtada as the real enemy of the Sunnis. And they succeeded.” But who are “they”? The Maliki government? The Americans? Muqtada has been trying a rapprochement with moderate Sunnis for almost two years now. But his conditions are clear: Sunnis must reject Ba’athists and al-Qaeda. He believes this still might happen. Reality, for the moment, suggests otherwise.

(Dis)united we fight

What both Zawahiri and Muqtada are saying torpedoes the heavily spun Bush-system propaganda according to which Iranian “networks” inside Iraq are allied with the Iraqi resistance to kill Americans. The last thing on Earth Iranian Shi’ites would do is smuggle weapons to Ba’athists, Saddam allies and/or al-Qaeda. The surefire way for the leadership in Tehran to raise hell in Iraq against the United States would be to help the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq’s (SCIRI’s) Badr Organization, or the Mehdi Army for that matter, to launch its own anti-US guerrilla war. That is obviously not happening – at least while Iran has not been the victim of a US/Israeli attack.

The winner in the short term in Iraq will be the clever chess player who has managed to ingratiate himself as Bush’s man – apart from the momentarily shadowy Allawi: SCIRI’s Abdulaziz al-Hakim, whose Badr Organization, holed up in the Ministry of the Interior, actually deploys anti-Sunni death squads.

Why is he Bush’s man? Simple: he supports the soon-to-be-voted-on Iraqi oil law, the Holy Grail for Anglo-American Big Oil. Muqtada, on the other hand, is fiercely against it. From the Bush/Cheney system’s perspective, two crucial “sins” – Muqtada’s courtship of moderate Sunnis to get their act together against the occupation, and his admiration of Hezbollah’s strategy – pale before the ultimate sin: Muqtada wants Iraqi oil for Iraqis.

The US plan B anyway is on. If Maliki does not deliver and defang the Mehdi Army – as he certainly won’t – a US-engineered white coup will be inevitable, and there are only two possibilities: “Saddam without a mustache” Allawi, or a Hakim-blessed candidate.

Hakim is already cleverly manipulating the US escalation to strike against his two real mortal enemies – the muqawama (resistance) and the Mehdi Army – at the same time. No wonder Sunni tribal leaders started accusing the US of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. So there’s no way for Iraqification-cum-surge to appeal to Sunnis. The muqawama knows it – and it is already making plans to lie low at times, hide its constant flow of weapons bought with funding from private, wealthy Saudi and Persian Gulf individuals, or retreat from Baghdad and melt away in the desert province of al-Anbar.

Bush’s surge is perfect if the template is divide and rule. The Battle of Sadr City will divide the Shi’ites into a pro-US “elite” (SCIRI and Da’wa) and a guerrilla force of the damned (the Sadrists). It will divide the Shi’ites from the Kurds (peshmergas from Kurdistan killing Shi’ites in Baghdad). It will keep Shi’ites and Sunnis bitterly divided (the other battle front in the surge is against the Sunni Arab resistance). Hakim may consider himself the winner. But Zawahiri, of course, will also love it, confident that his emirate in al-Anbar – led by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir – will ride the storm. Like the White House/Pentagon, al-Qaeda after all insists on also fighting a two-pronged war, in al-Qaeda’s case against the Americans and the Shi’ites.

With Baghdad to be divided into nine military districts, each with its dedicated Iraqi army/police and its embedded US battalion, the muqawama is also more than relishing the prospect of laying siege to the sitting-duck Fort Apaches that will spring up in each of these districts. What happened in Karbala last Sunday will be quite common in Fort Apache land: attacks by guerrilla commandos disguised as American soldiers, driving in a convoy of GMCs. And Black Hawk Down will be endlessly replayed – just like last Saturday, when a helicopter was shot down by a clumsy Russian SA-7 shoulder-fired missile.

Most of all, the dire prospect is of a devastating air war over Baghdad – followed by wholesale slaughter of Sunnis and Shi’ites alike as counterinsurgency fails (there are no hearts and minds to be won; everyone wants US troops out). But as US bombs and missiles now define who is a “terrorist” and who is not – see the recent bombing of Somali nomadic herdsmen sold as dangerous al-Qaeda operatives – Iraqification-cum-surge will be a disaster mostly for every Baghdadi caught in the crossfire.

The Pentagon cannot at the same time launch the Battle of Sadr City, fight the muqawama spread out and in control all over western Baghdad, and fight al-Qaeda in al-Anbar province. Or maybe it could: if bombs and missiles from above are The Great Decider on who’s a terrorist, why not take out everybody down there on the ground? Forty years after Che Guevara’s “one, two, a thousand Vietnams,” meet “one, two, a thousand Fallujahs.”