- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

Perhaps senior Bush administration officials thought establishing a democratic Iraq would be quick work. In an essay I wrote for the Dec. 9, 2002, issue of the Weekly Standard, I described what I thought a very difficult path to peace:

“Pity Gen. Tommy Franks or, for that matter, any American military commander tasked with overseeing a post-Saddam Baghdad. For in that amorphous, dicey phase the Pentagon calls ‘war termination’ … U.S. and allied forces liberating Iraq will attempt — more or less simultaneously — to end combat operations, cork public passions, disarm Iraqi battalions, bury the dead, generate electricity, pump potable water, bring law out of embittering lawlessness, empty jails of political prisoners, pack jails with criminals, turn armed partisans into peaceful citizens, rearm local cops who were once enemy infantry, shoot terrorists, thwart chiselers, carpetbaggers and black-marketeers, fix sewers, feed refugees, patch potholes and get trash trucks rolling, and accomplish all this under the lidless gaze of Peter Jennings and Al Jazeera.”

Crammed with the nitty-gritty of governance and economics, the sentence ends with a caustic reminder of the importance of media interpretation.

October 2005: Mr. Jennings has passed away, Al Jazeera is still with us — though arguably less antagonistic since the January Iraqi presidential election. The terror war within Iraq continues pitting terrorist hell against democratic hope. A multitude of economic and governmental challenges linger.

But current combat in Iraq is not simply the result of slapdash postwar planning. The United States has two strategic goals that have taken years to mesh in terms of political, economic and military operations:

Goal 1: Battle al Qaeda in militarily and politically to destroy its claim to “divine sanction” and to “speak on behalf of Islam.”

Goal 2: Seed development of modern, democratic states in the politically dysfunctional Arab Muslim Middle East.

Achieving both goals defeats al Qaeda. Goal No. 2 is a multidecade project. Reaching it requires sustained, courageous effort, but Iraq’s January election and its constitutional process are signs of progress. Sensational carnage and “expert pessimism” dominated the international media’s January election coverage. Despite the dour predictions, Iraqi voters responded, waving ink-stained fingers — a terror-defying demonstration of political change. Al Jazeera didn’t miss it.

Military defeat in Afghanistan dealt al Qaeda’s claim of “divine sanction” a hard blow.

However, smashing al Qaeda’s claim to act on behalf of “all Muslims” is far more complicated than killing or arresting terrorists. Undermining its megalomanical appeal meant exposing it as the inhuman, ungodly Mass Murder Inc. it is. The optimal outcome would be exposure of al Qaeda as a threat to Muslims and detrimental to the best ideals of Islam.

When al Qaeda zealots blow up trains in Spain or subways in London, those are attacks of their choosing on “infidel terrain.” The genius of the Iraq war is a brutal but necessary form of strategic judo: It brought the War on Terror into the heart of the Middle East and onto Arab Muslim turf. In Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi’s theo-fascists have been spilling Arab blood, and Al Jazeera has noticed that, too.

Arabs have also seen the Iraqis’ struggle and their emerging political alternative to despotism and feudal autocracy.

Zarqawi’s murder spree has revealed fissures among al Qaeda fanatics. Last week, the United States released a letter coalition intelligence believes al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent to Zarqawi. Zawahiri describes Iraq as “the greatest battle for Islam in our era.” But Iraq has become a political and information battle that al-Zawahiri realizes al Qaeda may be losing. According to the New York Times, al-Zawahiri told Zarqawi to attack Americans rather than Iraqi civilians and to “refrain from the kind of gruesome beheadings and other executions that have been posted on al Qaeda Web sites. Those executions have been condemned in parts of the Muslim world as violating tenets of the faith.”

In February 2004, Zarqawi acknowledged a democratic Iraq would mean al Qaeda’s defeat there. To defeat democracy, he has pursued a relentless, nihilistic bloodbath. It’s a brutal irony of war: Doing so, he is losing the war for the hearts and minds.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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