At Last, Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq

Baghdad, March 17, 2007. The rats have started devouring their own now in Anbar Province. Yesterday Sunni extremists, almost certainly al Qaeda terrorists, set off a coordinated series of three suicide truck bombs, each loaded with chlorine, which the explosions expelled in the form of poisonous chlorine gas. Three hundred and fifty Iraqi civilians and six coalition force members were treated for exposure to chlorine gas in the neighborhood of the bombs, according to a statement from the U.S. military command; death tolls varied but apparently at least two Iraqi policemen died, with one coalition soldier wounded. Iraqi police reports put the death toll as high as 12, apparently from the explosions, not from the gas. What was most significant about these and similar attacks, however, is that they were clearly intended to punish Sunni civilians deliberately and indiscriminately. There have been plenty of indiscriminate terrorist suicide bombs targeting Shia civilians by Sunni extremists, but attacks by Sunni insurgents on their own sect have been confined to supporters of the government and the coalition. In the last few weeks, that has changed dramatically--particularly yesterday and today, when all six of the suicide bombings in the last 24 hours hit Sunni neighborhoods in Ramadi (twice), Fallujah, Amiriyah, Balad and Baghdad's Harithia quarter.

Reconciliation is what the al Qaeda ratpack seems to fear most, and this attack on their own coincides with increased possibilities of Shia-Sunni cooperation. In recent months, tribal sheikhs and imams in Anbar province have become increasingly bold in speaking out against terrorists, and Sunni politicians have shown more willingness to cooperate with a government of national unity. And as the Baghdad security plan ramps up in the capital, Shia death squads and the Mehdi Army have refrained from sectarian killings of Sunnis, giving some hope of further reconciliation. A new draft oil law passed by the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki this month has been greeted warmly by many Sunni leaders; at the heart of it is a formula for sharing the country's oil wealth equally on a per capita basis, rather than geographically, which is important to Sunnis because their areas have no proven oil deposits. And Maliki, a Shia, went to Ramadi last week--the first such visit by a leading Shia figure--where he met with tribal Sunni sheikhs.

All of that has seemed to put the takfiris of al Qaeda into a frenzy of spite against their Sunni brethren. A statement on a jihadi Web site attributed to the al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi denounced all Iraqis as "a nation of traitors." In Baghdad's Kharq district, the western side of the city where most large concentrations of Sunnis are now located, leaflets began to appear in recent days in hardcore Sunni communities like Abu Ghraib, Dora, Mansour, Saidiya and Ghazaliya calling on fellow Sunnis to turn in terrorists.

The chlorine gas attacks were the most blatant attempt by al Qaeda yet at terrorizing their Sunni base, on their own home turf in Anbar province. The first suicide truck bomb, apparently a pickup truck with chlorine cannisters on board, was set off about 4 p.m. at a coalition checkpoint in Ramadi; only one coalition soldier and one Iraqi civilian were injured. Two and a half hours later, the second suicide truck bomb--described variously as a dump truck or a tanker truck--blew up two blocks from the police station in the town of Amiriyah, about 10 miles south of Fallujah, killing two policemen and exposing 100 Sunni residents to chlorine gas. "Coalition Forces confirmed that the Amiriyah citizens exposed to the chlorine were treated locally for symptoms ranging from minor skin and lung irritation to vomiting," a military statement said. Thirty-seven minutes later, a third large truck bomb exploded three miles south of Fallujah, near the village of Albu Issa; this time, the suicide bomber set off a dump truck containing a 200-gallon chlorine tank rigged with explosives, the U.S. military said. When the Marines responded to the scene, they found 250 civilians suffering from chlorine exposure, although only four adults and seven children required hospitalization; the others were treated at the scene. The explosion was set off in front of the house of a leading tribal sheikh of the Albu Issa tribe, who had been strongly anti-al Qaeda.

Those were just the most recent in a series of terrorist attacks on Sunnis by Sunni extremists, mostly in Anbar province. Twice previously, between Jan. 28 and yesterday, chlorine suicide bomb attacks were employed, killing at least eight people, although the chlorine gas did not spread effectively in either of those attacks. Chlorine is not a very efficient chemical weapon. Although there is no antidote for chlorine poisoning, in most cases the symptoms can be treated by rinsing copiously with water. People seldom die from exposure to the gas--and chlorine once released into the environment quickly turns into a gas--but it can cause painful chemical burns and lung problems. Exposure to the liquefied form can even cause frostbite, but in an explosion even of liquefied chlorine most of it would gasify quickly. Because chlorine gas is heavier than air, it doesn't travel far after a spill or an explosion, but settles close to the ground; in most cases, just fleeing to an upper story of a building is enough to escape it.

Chlorine isn't the only weapon the terrorists have used against their own. For two months now al Qaeda has been waging a stepped-up campaign of assassinations against Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) activists and officials in Anbar province. The hardline Sunni party is now a member of Maliki's national unity government. Among those killed in Fallujah were IIP leaders Sheikh Jameel al-Tikriti and Sheikh Omar Saeed Horan. When the imam of the main mosque in Habaniya, in al Anbar, Sheikh Mohammed al Maraawi, spoke out forcefully against terrorists on Feb. 25, the next day he was killed in front of the Al Sahaba mosque by a suicide truck bomb; 52 others also died. And just today, according to a report on Al Sharqiya TV, a group of men forced their way into the Fallujah home of a retired Saddam-era air force general, Mahmood Ghalib al-Zoba'ee, and shot him to death in front of his family. Also today, according to the Iraqi Baratha News Agency, the leader of the al-Mouli Sunni tribe in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha city in Anbar province, Sheikh Bayram Affan, was assassinated by gunmen who broke into his house. They also killed his wife.

It all seems a mad and desperate policy, even from a takfiri point of view. The al Qaeda extremists' philosophy holds Shia Muslims in contempt generally, and justifies killing them as apostates--men, women and children. It also brooks no dissent from its tenets, and considers any Muslim a traitor if he fails to support them. In the past, many Sunnis, while not extremists themselves, have indirectly been complicit in al Qaeda's excesses. Attacks on unarmed Shia pilgrims on their way to Karbala two weeks ago, for instance, did not come in for condemnation from the Sunni community, which has also been notably quiet in its denunciation of assassinations and suicide bombings generally. Instead, Sunni leaders would respond by equating them with the excesses of Shia death squads, who enjoyed the support of the police. And if the Shia had their militias, the Sunnis had the insurgents and al Qaeda. In most of Anbar, however, Shia-Sunni violence is not a factor, and the insurgents and their terrorist allies had long enjoyed widespread support, until al Anbar's tribal sheikhs began turning against them last year.

Ugly as these latest attacks are, they may in the end be good news for a government and coalition badly in need of some. If there's one thing the U.S. presence has shown, cowing Iraqis into submission is no longer terribly effective, particularly when foreigners are the heavies. Al Qaeda may yet find itself marginalized as a foreign-based terrorist clique, just at a time when it had started to show an ability to recruit more and more indigenous Iraqis into the ranks of its suicide bombers, who previously had all been foreigners. Even rats need friends, if only to provide them with holes in which to hide. Al Qaeda's pathetic attempt at a weapon of mass destruction may yet prove to be just so much rat poison.

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