Horror Show

by John Q on September 14, 2004

The big news on Australian screens last night was the claim by a terrorist group calling itself the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army[1] to have kidnapped two Australians near Mosul. As is more or less standard, the announcement said the hostages would be killed unless Australian troops were withdrawn from Iraq. It now appears likely that the claim was bogus, but it has certainly made Australians think about a situation that was previously only hypothetical. Coming only a few days after the Jakarta bombing, it ensures that the issue of whether the Iraq war has made us safer, and what we should do about it, is going to be central to the election campaign.

As the spate of terrorist kidnappings makes clear, the Iraq war hasn’t made Australians, or anyone else, any safer from terrorism. Two years ago, the only terrorists of any significance in Iraq were the al-Ansar group with which Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was closely associated. This group had a base conveniently located (from our point of view) in the Kurdish controlled section of Iraq. The Pentagon drew up plans to wipe them out, but these plans were vetoed by the Bush Administration apparently concerned they would undermine the political case for war with Saddam. By the time US forces arrived at the camp in the early days of the invasion, it was empty. Zarqawi was gone, but not for long. As I’ve said several times, this was the worst single betrayal of our interests in the leadup to war, far worse than dodgy dossiers and faked memos from Niger.

In the eighteen months since the invasion, Zarqawi has been implicated in a string of atrocities causing many hundreds of deaths. Meanwhile, the occupation has provided him with large numbers of recruits, as well as imitators like the Horror Brigades. So, having had the opportunity to destroy one of al-Qaeda’s main offshoots, the Bush Administration chose instead to protect and encourage it.

It’s clear that the presence of US-led troops is only making things worse, particularly given the continuing strategic incompetence manifested in Fallujah, Najaf, Haifa Street and other places. Every killing of civilians by US forces, whatever justification the official press release may offer, is another boost for Zarqawi and the Horror Brigades, and provides a plausible excuse for their own crimes. The impact of the latest episode, with an Arab TV reporter dying as he broadcast, can only be imagined.

The best we can hope for at this point is to hold elections in as much of the country as possible, hand over power to a more or less legitimate government, presumably dominated by followers of Sistani, and stage an orderly and rapid withdrawal. Whatever the risks, the alternative of staying on is doomed to failure.

From Australia’s point of view, this means that Latham’s policy of withdrawing most troops as soon as he takes office is the right one. It will extract our forces from the quagmire and put pressure on the Americans to set their own timetable for withdrawal.

One warning this episode gives us is that, once the withdrawal date is set, it’s necessary to go into lockdown mode, with all Australian nationals either evacuated or under heavy guard until the withdrawal is complete (and probably after that as well). Otherwise we’re almost certain to be hit with the same kind of demand as the Phillipines – with hostages being held against a demand for an accelerated withdrawal. I agree with John Howard in saying we shouldn’t give in to such demands. But we wouldn’t be facing them if we hadn’t invaded Iraq in the first place.

fn1. The name sounds like a bad joke, but the group is real enough, having been implicated in a series of previous kidnappings.



NeoPopPsyche 09.14.04 at 3:07 pm

Plan of Attack

And Powell, shaking his head, kept saying, “This is lunacy.” It was not clear where the off switch was or whether there was an off switch. So the secretary of state sought opportunities to speak directly to the president.

“Don’t let yourself get pushed into anything until you are ready for it,” Powell advised Bush, “or until you think there is a real reason for it. This is not as easy as it is being presented, and take your time on this one. Don’t let anybody push you into it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the president replied. “It’s good contingency planning and I know what they are doing and I’m in no hurry to go look for trouble.”

Still alarmed that such a scheme might get traction, Powell again raised the matter of a quick strike or incursion into Iraq to the president. He said, “You don’t have to be bullied into this.” He urged Bush to take it slowly.

“I’ve got it,” the president replied. “I know it.”


D MASON 09.14.04 at 4:51 pm

I hope that “Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army” sounds more convincing in Arabic than it does translated to English- The name sounds like something out of Amazing Stories comic books!


perianwyr 09.14.04 at 4:54 pm

that name is totally awesome.


Giles 09.14.04 at 5:12 pm

looks like neo’s already wiring the comics.

Mustr say the name to me sounds more like a 12 year old boys club – a bunch of kids who secretely get together to watch boot leg copies of texas chain saw massacre etc.

Still its telling that this comic book stuff made headlines, all be it breifly.


Dan Hardie 09.14.04 at 6:49 pm

‘The best we can hope for at this point is to hold elections in as much of the country as possible’

As you’ll have noted anyway, if we hold elections which exclude Fallujah, Samarrah, Ramadi and other Sunni areas currently under jihadi/Ba’athist control, the result will look extremely illegitimate to much, perhaps all of the Sunni population, with God knows what consequence. If on the other hand we wish to control those areas, we need to move troops into them, which means, on the evidence of the last time the US Marines went into Fallujah, massive casualties on all sides.


John Quiggin 09.14.04 at 9:01 pm

The best I can come up with for the Sunni no-go areas is to allow absentee voting in Baghdad for people from those areas. That might not be “free and fair”, but at least the Sunni seats would be filled.

It’s not a good solution, but we’re long past the point where there are any good solutions on offer.


dsquared 09.14.04 at 11:47 pm

Surely it’s obvious by now that the model of democracy we were planning on bringing to Iraq was the Israeli model; basically a Western-style democracy, but with a short half-million people disenfranchised and kept at bay with helicopter gunships. Which has the plus point of being better than Saddam Hussein and probably better than Syria, but the minus point of breeding terrorists like day-old hollandaise sauce breeds salmonella.


Tom Doyle 09.15.04 at 2:47 am

“[T]he issue of whether the Iraq war has made us safer, and what we should do about it, is going to be central to the election campaign.”

In the run-up to the war, and subsequently, many expressed the view that the illegality of the war would have negative “safety” consequences. The article below is one example of this perspective. It seems to me that the argument is at least presumptively valid, since the norms violated were established to prevent and/or limit wars.


Contemporary Review, July, 2003 by James Hamill

[M]ilitary operations that take place outside the confines of the United Nations (UN) Charter will always carry a political price and ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ is likely to be no different. This article does not seek to provide an exhaustive survey of the geo-political fall-out from the Iraq war but confines itself to a discussion of the conflict’s potential impact in three broad but crucial areas of contemporary international relations.

Lowering the Threshold for War

One of the more disturbing aspects of the resort to war in Iraq without proper legal authority was that it signalled a further lowering of the international threshold for armed action. A point made by several commentators in January-February 2003 bears repetition here: pre-emptive action, if it is to be launched at all, must be subject to the most rigorous tests and must meet very exacting criteria if it is to be considered acceptable. Diplomatic avenues should have been tried, exhausted, and found wanting and any military threat should be of a direct and immediate nature. [T]hat was manifestly not the case with Iraq. A declaration by the US that it reserved the right to attack Iraq pre-emptively, irrespective of the position of international institutions, global opinion and international law, did not amount to the construction of a formidable political case.


The subsequent rather patronising rhetoric from British and A merican officials that the UN had ‘failed’ this test and had been unable to demonstrate its ‘relevance’ or the ‘will’ to resolve the situation is revealing in that it implies that the only way in which the Security Council could have demonstrated its ‘relevance’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘will’ was by adhering to the precise position taken by Washington and London. Other states had a perfectly legitimate counter-argument, namely that the choice was not between war and ‘doing nothing’– an absurd characterisation of the situation by the US and Britain – but between a premature war and a lengthier and more realistic disarmament process, with clear benchmarks and timetables measured in months rather than days, as Dr Blix had requested. The US-British position provided a crude caricature of the diplomatic process but that peremptory style was unfortunately typical of both governments’ approach to the Iraq issue from early 2002 onward.


The US and Britain must now face the unpalatable post-Iraq fact that where they have gone in lowering the threshold to armed action others may choose to follow, citing their own security needs and claiming a similar right of anticipatory self-defence – China in Taiwan, India in Pakistan, Russia in its neighbourhood – and the ability of the US and Britain to criticise and censure such operations will have been fatally compromised by their own precedent. The genie of pre-emptive war – with its inherent capacity for serious abuse – is now out of the bottle, courtesy of Washington and London.


Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a Congressional stalwart for many years, argued in a speech to the Senate, on 12 February 2003, that the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack appeared to stand in direct contravention of international law and the UN Charter (see ‘We stand passively mute’, The Guardian, 18 February). Veteran Los Angeles Times journalist, William Pfaff, in an article published in the International Herald Tribune on 2 October 2002, argued that the Bush Doctrine undermines the principle of state sovereignty which has hitherto been the bedrock of international relations and the basis of international order ‘by substituting not a new universalist and allegedly liberating principle, but to achieve American security, to which it implicitly subordinates the security of every other nation’. Pfaff notes that the UN Charter, which the US was instrumental in drafting and which still stands as one of the central pillars of international law, specifically outlaws ‘the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’ and the launching of pre-emptive war, he reminds us, was ‘specifically treated as a war crime at the Nuremberg trials’. Pfaff forecasts that America’s assertion of a right ‘by virtue of its own rectitude, to military domination of the world’ will destabilise international relations, undermine international law, and exacerbate international insecurity — hardly the stuff of a successful foreign policy.”

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