As Washington soldiers through the Iraqi quagmire, a senior Al-Qaeda figure offers lessons on war and peace

President Bush on 1 December called for an international consensus on a new quest for peace in the Middle East, even as US troops continued to struggle against a widening resistance in Iraq and a videotape recorded by Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri was released urging Americans to treat the Muslim world with respect or face the consequences.

‘If all nations that are concerned about this issue will apply goodwill, this conflict will end and peace will be achieved, and the time for that effort and the time for that goodwill is now,’ said Bush, who was on a fence-mending visit to Canada. His pacific sentiments would have been welcomed by Al-Zawahri, who, in a tape aired by Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, said that the US ‘must choose between two ways of behaving towards Muslims. Either you deal with them on the basis of respect and mutual interest or you treat them as easy prey.’

But the US president was referring to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, not the war on Iraq, which has instead become conflated with the ‘war on terror’ in the rhetoric of the Bush administration.

The decision to expand US troop numbers by 12,000 to 150,000 suggests that Iraqi insurgents are proving far from easy prey. In the wake of the siege of Fallujah, a wave of attacks since early November has left hundreds of Iraqi and coalition troops dead. Military units are also having their tours of duty extended to cover the run-up to elections. However, describing the security situation in Mosul – the new centre of resistance – as ‘tenuous’, US commander in northern Iraq Brig Gen Carter Hamm said on 28 November that the planned 30 January elections are looking increasingly unfeasible.

Whether the polls will be carried off as planned will be a key test of US policy, but the administration has set itself a new yardstick by recommitting itself to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There is considerable scepticism as to whether Bush’s sentiments amount to anything other than a sop to long-suffering allies such as the UK, if only because Washington’s recent and wholehearted support for Israel’s ‘war on terrorism’ is generally consistent with past policy and the present US’ administration’s bellicose stance on Iraq. But this policy is coming under increasing fire from within the US. ‘[Osama] Bin Laden is attacking us because of a specific set of US policies that have been in gear for 30 years and haven’t been reviewed, haven’t been debated, haven’t been questioned,’ Mike Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, said on 24 November.

Scheuer is one of a number of former administration officials to accuse the White House of a lack of strategic thought and the kind of ‘imagination’ called for by the 11 September commission. But, with contrary signals emerging from the White House, critics of the Republican presidency are being left to wonder whether, as he enters his second term, at least Bush is still the devil they know.