*Breaking News. A suicide bomber set off an enormous truck bomb at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, which was serving as the United Nations Headquarters, beneath the office of UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. De Mello and 17 others are confirmed dead, with 100 or more injured, and much of the front of the hotel was reduced to rubble.
The big question on people’s minds is, ‘why target the UN?’
There are two main suspects in the bombing, it seems to me. One is Baathist remnants fighting a rear-guard guerrilla war against what they see as the US occupation. If it was Baathists or ex-Baathists, they may have gone after the UN in bitterness over those years of economic sanctions, which weakened the Baath military and government. Although the UN did not go along with the Anglo-American invasion, United Nations agencies and NGOs have been providing aid to Iraqis of a sort that helps the reconstruction effort and therefore implicitly helps the Bremer administration of the country. And, it could just be that Baath agents noticed that the Canal Hotel did not have much in the way of security and so was an ideal soft target. De Mello is an unlikely symbol of the US occupation, but he is a symbol from a Baath point of view of the way world institutions have asserted themselves in Iraq since 1991.
The other possibility is Sunni Muslim radicalism, whether al-Qaeda (i.e. people who have sworn fealty to Osama Bin Ladin) or other, shadowy organizations that have some affiliation to al-Qaeda. One is Ansar al-Islam, a radical Sunni organization in Iraq that has al-Qaeda links. This bombing has some similarities to that of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad recently. Suicide bombings are not unknown among secular groups, but it seems to me that a religious terrorist is more likely to choose that path. And, al-Qaeda has a long-standing beef against the United Nations going back to the tension between its aid organizations and the Taliban in the late 1990s. Bin Laden denounced Muslims who cooperate with the UN in fall of 2001. Since the Sunni radicals operate in failed states, they often butt heads with the UN, which is the main international agency charged with getting failed states back on their feet. They may fear that the US will eventually hand Iraq off to the UN, and wish to forestall such a move. Or they may want revenge for past slights, like the UNSC resolution authorizing the US war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Kurdish party, the PUK, has said that al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan who escaped from Iran are now infiltrating into Iraq, and that the Kurds have intercepted some of these. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that Saudi security officials are concerned about the disappearance of some 3000 young men in Saudi Arabia, suspecting that they went off to Iraq for jihad against the Americans. Since al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, who formed the 55th Brigade of the Taliban, are estimated to have been about 5,000 strong, it may well be that there are now as many Arab and al-Qaeda guerrillas in Iraq as there were in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.
I don’t think there is any doubt that the various guerrillas fighting the Bremer administration of Iraq are at the very least succeeding in creating the impression that the US does not control the situation. I personally think that the US is not in control, anyway, and that it would take 500,000 troops to get control. But it probably is the case that things on the ground are not quite as bad as the guerrillas try to make them seem. Still, the conflict has moved to a public relations phase, in Iraq, in the US, and in the wider world. There seems to me little doubt that the guerrillas are winning the public relations war, and that it is fairly easy for them to do so. All they have to do is commit symbolic acts, the import of which is that the US is not in control. And, their ability to sabotage oil pipelines, electricity generators, water mains, and so forth, makes it difficult for the US to look to the Iraqi public as though it is in control. I don’t personally see an easy way for the US to get out of all this gracefully, and fear that things will end in fiasco. The only question is whether it will be a Haiti or Somalia-type fiasco, where things go bad again after the US leaves, but life limps along; or whether it will be an Iran-type fiasco (1978-79) where there is a revolution against the US fueled in part by nationalist resentment of US intervention. If the latter, I would concur that it is still some time off.
A profile of de Mello is at the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/