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Osama VS. al-Zarqawi

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Feb 14, 2005
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OSAMA bin Laden gets it. The terror-master understands that the campaign of bombings and assassinations has backfired in Iraq, erasing popular support for Islamist fanatics and unleashing the forces of freedom.

So World Terrorist No. 1 sent a message to Regional Terrorist No. 1: We're losing. We need a different strategy.

Osama wants Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to shift his sights from Iraq's population, to help carry the struggle back to American soil. With the old order beginning to crack in the wake of Iraq's elections, bin Laden sees that his last, desperate hope is to hurt America so badly that we quit the fight.

Osama is a strategist. He may not be a very good strategist — he called the after-effects of 9/11 utterly wrong. But he thinks in global terms, in time-frames that look decades into the future and centuries into the past. He's a big-picture guy.

Zarqawi is a hit man. He thinks tactically. Faced with the humiliation of 8 million Iraqis defying his threats and lining up to vote, his instinctive response is to lash out, to punish, to kill without stopping. Monday's bombing in Hilla took 115 Iraqi lives. It was a classic Zarqawi operation.

Osama and Zarqawi are both frustrated by the series of reverses they've suffered. But their perspectives on the Islamist war against modern civilization differ profoundly.

Even in hiding, Osama has managed to build an accurate picture of events in the greater Middle East, where his cause is on the ropes. He's realized that Zarqawi's program of videotaped beheadings, suicide bombings against civilian targets and the assassination of teachers, doctors and local officials hasn't won hearts and minds.

Zarqawi has become a menace to Osama's vision. The new guy on the block is out of control. He's hitting the wrong targets.

Osama is a long way from disavowing Zarqawi — he'd rather use him. But an eventual split could come, if the Jordanian doesn't read between the lines of the big guy's message. Osama wants a change in tactics. Now. Three years ago, people in the Middle East were cheering and naming their babies after him. Now he's losing his star quality.

The people of the Middle East are voting in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, toppling a puppet government in Lebanon, agitating for elections in Egypt — and even casting ballots for municipal representatives in Saudi Arabia. Syria looks shaky and Iran's youthful population wants the mullahs gone. Sunni and Shi'a Muslims may even learn to cooperate.

Whether Osama's sitting in Karachi, in the mountains bordering Afghanistan or even in Iran, he sees that the West is winning. The infidels are turning the heads of the faithful.

It must eat at him like cancer.

Bin Laden knows that his movement can't afford a further hemorrhage of popular support. In his gory way, Zarqawi is becoming a more immediate threat to al Qaeda than America. By killing so many Muslims, Zarqawi has destroyed the folk-hero image of Islamist terrorists, reducing them to nothing but renegade murderers.

Zarqawi may blow Osama off. His resources and interests are regional, not global. He doesn't have the temperament to call off his private war and try again elsewhere. Zarqawi's a gritty, furious field officer who wants to get at the enemy right now. Osama's the general with the broader grasp of events.

Osama's real message to Zarqawi isn't Hit America instead. It's Stop what you're doing, brother.

Our homeland will be hit again. By someone. Sooner or later, the bad guy lands a punch. Meanwhile, we should take heart from the latest evidence — delivered by Osama himself — that the cause of freedom is even more powerful than we thought, that democracy is contagious.

Osama's message to Zarqawi was one of despair — and a tribute to the millions of Arabs who are turning against his kind.

Ralph Peters is the author of "Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace."

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