The Muslim world watched, on live TV, as suicide bombers in Karbala and Baghdad killed 181 people and wounded more than 500. It was, as one British reporter put it, “the Shia’s 11 September.”

The absence of US troops and Iraqi police in the streets of Karbala on March 2, 2004, combined with Gen. Abizaid’s hasty excuse that the US had arrested a group of would-be car bombers the day before, only highlighted the incompetence of US forces on the ground in battling this “insurgency.” It must have been obvious to everyone watching that, with nearly two million people packed into the streets of Karbala, no cars would have been able to get through the crowds to the temple where the bombings took place.

The truth is, US forces themselves are a target that draws hostile fire; their presence was not welcome by Shiite religious and community leaders for that very reason. The same is true for the Iraqi police. And so the one thing that could most quickly lead to civil war in Iraq is now happening: Shiite groups are forming–or, in some cases, reconstituting–their own militias to provide security.

Such contradictions are part of fighting against a guerrilla insurgency. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is still trying to disguise the nature of the conflict in Iraq, during this election year here at home. And so they’ve had to find a bogeyman to blame for the bombings.

Enter the figure of Abu Musab Zarqawi. Or re-enter, to be accurate: Zarqawi is the guy Colin Powell mentioned in his pre-war presentation to the UN as Saddam Hussein’s link to Al Qaeda, the so-called high-level operative who passed through Baghdad in search of medical treatment. In Pentagon press conferences, Zarqawi and his group of “infiltrators” has become the convenient source of the bombing attacks.

But a closer examination of US claims about Zarqawi reveals many inconsistencies.

At first, the Bush administration portrayed Zarqawi as part of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle or most-trusted agents. But soon the backpedaling began. Zarqawi became an “associate” of Al Qaeda, a man who had trained in one of their camps. Then it turned out that his training was in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the late 1980s, long before the Taliban and Al Qaeda entered the scene. Other terrorism experts describe him as a “fellow traveler” of Al Qaeda or inspired by Osama bin Laden. One Arab specialist, a professor at the University of Michigan, told the Washington Post that Zarqawi actually appears to be “a rival of the bin Laden group,” with his own terrorist gang. This is a far cry from original Bush administration contentions that Zarqawi was Osama’s lead link to Saddam Hussein.

Two weeks ago, US forces in Iraq claimed to have captured a computer disk containing the draft of a letter to Al Qaeda requesting help in waging a Sunni jihad against the Shiites, Kurds, Iraqi police, and US forces. The Pentagon was quick to name Zarqawi as the author of the letter, and the US media raised few questions about either the authenticity of the document or the likelihood that Zarqawi wrote it. Even the most basic question–how can they know who authored a computer file that lacks a signature?–went unasked.

Terrorism experts and Arabic scholars, however, have been scratching their heads over this letter and the accompanying US claims. They were quick to point out that the letter was a plea for Al Qaeda to get involved in the insurgency in Iraq, which contradicts Bush administration insistence that Al Qaeda is heavily involved in suicide bombings that started late last year.

US officials have called Zarqawi a leader of Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group in Northern Iraq whose camps were targeted by US bombs shortly after the invasion. Ansar is frequently cited by the Bush administration as Al Qaeda’s proxy in Iraq, but Ansar is not a Sunni Muslim group like Al Qaeda; they’re a Kurdish fundamentalist group, whose targets have historically been Kurdish secular parties, particularly the KDP and the PUK. It seems highly unlikely that they would call for a Sunni jihad in Iraq.

US officials have admitted that Zarqawi’s “vision” differs from bin Laden’s. While bin Laden wants to wage war on the West, as embodied by the US and Europeans, Zarqawi sees Israel and Jews as the prime target. If so, one would expect Zarqawi to be active in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, working with Hamas, or possibly in Lebanon, and not purportedly sneaking around in Iraq, bombing Shiite Muslim shrines.

And then the Zarqawi theory reached the level of high comedy last week when a group of 12 Sunni anti-US militias issued a communique that claims Zarqawi is dead, killed in a US bombing attack last year. Zarqawi’s family confirmed to US officials and reporters that they haven’t heard from him for four months. Deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brigadier General David Rodriguez told a group of reporters, “There is no direct evidence whether he is alive or dead at this point, that we have.” The US media, naturally, failed to ask why, without evidence that the man is even alive, the Pentagon is making such elaborate claims about Zarqawi’s involvement in the suicide bombings in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the broader charade continues. Paul Bremer still claims that foreign “infiltrators” are responsible for the attacks, while Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, who commands the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, calls that a “misconception”–a very diplomatic way of saying Bremer is lying for political reasons. Dempsey still insists that his troops are primarily facing a home-grown insurgency–another diplomatic term that deflects media attention away from the continuing guerrilla war in Iraq.

Sources: “The day of desecration: how bombs tore apart a festival of hope,” Justin Huggler, The Independent, 3/3/04, http://news.independent.co.uk/low_res/story.jsp? story=497330&host=3&dir=75; “Purported Qaeda Letter Denies Role in Iraq Blasts,” Reuters, 3/3/04; “Terror Suspect’s Ambitions Worry US Officials,” Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 3/3/04, p A22, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A24354-2004Mar2? language=printer; “Al-Qaeda or not, al-Zarqawi’s worth $10m,” Ritt Goldstein, Inter Press Service, printed in Asia Times, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/printN/html; “Iraq attacks: Is this the mastermind?” Paul Reynolds, BBC News Online, 3/2/01, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3525957.stm; “Leaflet Says Extremist Al-Zarqawi Is Dead,” Lee Keath, Associated Press, 3/4/04; “No direct evidence Zarqawi is alive or dead: general,” Agence France Presse, 3/4/04; “US Divided Over Foreign Agents in Iraq,” Jim Krane, Associated Press, 3/5/04.