COL The other intelligence failure

Much attention was rightly paid last week to the huge intelligence failure of the Bush team in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had no WMD. But I would argue that there is another, equally egregious intelligence failure when it comes to Iraq, one that is still bedeviling us right now: It is our complete ignorance about the PMD of Iraq -- the people of mass destruction, the suicide bombers -- and the environment that nurtures them.

The truth is, the intelligence failure in Iraq was not just about the chemicals Saddam was mixing in his basement; it was about the emotions he was brewing in Iraqi society.

Let's start with a simple observation: There have been some 125 suicide bomb attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq in the last 16 months, carried out most likely by Sunni Muslims. We need to think about this. There is some kind of suicide-supply chain working in the Muslim world and in Iraq that is able to draw recruits, connect them with bomb makers and deploy them tactically against U.S. and Iraqi targets on an almost daily basis.

What is even more unnerving about these suicide bombers is that, unlike the Hamas crew in Israel, who produce videos of themselves, explain their rationale and say goodbye to families, virtually all the bombers in Iraq have blown themselves up without even telling us their names.

We don't really know how they are chosen, trained, indoctrinated, armed and launched. What we know is that the suicide bombers have killed and maimed hundreds of Iraqis, many of them waiting to join the police or army, and in doing so have done more to block U.S. efforts to reconstruct Iraq than any other factor.


To put it bluntly: We are up against an enemy we do not know and cannot see -- but who is undermining the whole U.S. mission. In fairness, this sort of network is very hard to crack, especially when it has the support of many Sunnis, but our ignorance about it is part of a broader lack of understanding of changes within Iraqi society.

When I visited Iraq after the war, what struck me most was how utterly broken it was. The 35 years of Saddam's misrule, including a decade of U.N. sanctions, had decimated Iraq's physical and social infrastructure. The young masked gunmen sawing people's heads off today came of age in this vacuum, which was filled in by religion -- some of it injected by Saddam for his own reasons, and some of it flowing over the borders, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran.

For the past few decades there has been "a surge of Islamic identity, not just in Iraq, but all over the Arab world," said Yitzhak Nakash, a Brandeis University expert on Shiite Islam and author of the upcoming "Shiism and Nationalism in the Arab World." "We definitely ignored it. We were in denial."

But Saddam recognized its potential, Nakash said. On the Shiite side he allowed Muqtada al-Sadr's father to lead Friday prayers in hopes of soaking up the religious energy among Shiites and directing it away from the regime. When the elder al-Sadr turned it on Saddam instead, Saddam had him killed in 1999. On the Sunni side, Nakash added, Saddam went on a mosque-building spree, to bolster his legitimacy, and he tolerated an infusion of Wahhabi Islam from Saudi Arabia to counterbalance the Shiites.

By the time the United States invaded Iraq, "Islam was a potent force," Nakash said. "Iraq was no longer a largely secular country, waiting to embrace America, as many of the exiles remembered it."

Does this mean all is lost in Iraq? Not necessarily, Nakash argues. It does mean that we have to alter our strategy and narrow our short-term expectations. The Shiites and the Kurds, who are 80 percent of Iraq's population, still want a democratic Iraq. That is a foundation for hope.

What is required on America's part now, Nakash said, "is a strategic decision to come to terms with the reality on the ground" -- to accept the notion that not all Muslim clerics are alike, and actively engage the moderate Islamists as part of the solution in Iraq. We clearly need a broad strategy for Iraq and the Middle East that will give Islamists a chance to prove that Islamic democracy could not only stop the suicide bombers, but also genuinely promote accommodation between Islam and the West.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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