The Islamic Republic of Haditha?
Has Zarqawi established a new Fallujah-on-the-Euphrates in city of Haditha? The Guardian claims this is the case, after "a three-day visit by a reporter working for the Guardian last week." The reporter is unnamed, and the article is single sourced. Haditha is the site of the ambush of six Marine Snipers and the IED attack on an Armored Amphibious Vehicle earlier this month that resulted in the deaths of 14 Marines.
According to the unnamed reporter, Zarqawi's agents are in complete control of the town of 90,000, and has implemented Shariah law, complete with summary beheadings of "American agents" and other pleasantries such as the banning of alcohol, music, cell phones and the vision of a woman's face; the monitoring of "relations between the sexes" ; the whippings and savage beatings of criminals.
Judging from the source of the article, there is much room for skepticism. The Guardian has recently published pieces by a known Islamist (Dilpazier Aslam) and an al Qaeda terrorist (Sa'ad al-Faqih). There are elements of this story on Haditha that are clearly pro-jihadi: the children's desire for beheading videos over video games; the praise of the jihadis from citizens and tribal elders the restoration of order; and other such anecdotes. The following extrapolation of the strength of the terrorists is clearly jihadi propaganda designed to give the illusion of American weakness; "From attacks on US and Iraqi forces it is clear that other Anbar towns, such as Qaim, Rawa, Anna and Ramadi, are to varying degrees under the sway of rebels." This is fuzzy thinking at its finest. Add in the single sourcing of the article, and it credibility is suspect.
But it is entirely possible this story is true. At this stage in the Anbar Campaign, Coalition forces are not devoting many resources to occupying cities. Operation Quick Strike, which was directed at Haditha and surrounding towns, was another cordon and search operation designed to keep the insurgency off balance. Once the Coalition switches to clear and hold operations, towns such as Haditha will no longer remain open to enemy infiltration.
There is another item to consider here. At this time last year, Fallujah was the capital of the Zarqawi empire that stretched across the Anbar province. If the Guardian is correct, Haditha and a couple of backwater farming towns along the Euphrates are now the core of his empire. Zarqawi's area of operation is shrinking, and his support, particularly among Sunnis, is waning. He may be able to occupy Haditha and run it as his personal Islamist state, but he is a far cry from where he was last year, and even further from disrupting Iraq's political process.