11/23/2005 04:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Specter of a Zarqawi Takeover Is As False As Saddam's Mushroom Cloud

When the White House misled Congress and the American public to support an unprovoked attack on Iraq, they stressed frightening images of vast stockpiles of WMD and the threat of a mushroom cloud from Saddam's unchecked nuclear program. Of course, that all turned out to be false. But the White House is up to its old propaganda tricks again, this time to mislead Congress and the public to back the continued occupation of Iraq, which has already cost over 2,000 American lives, tens of thousands of injuries and maimings, and a large number of Iraqi civilian deaths.

The new threat that the White House is using to incite fear is the specter of a Zarqawi takeover of Iraq and the establishment a terrorist republic under his control. Certainly no one can dispute that Zarqawi is a deadly nuisance, capable of horrific attacks like the recent bombings in Jordan. But the ability to commit terrorist attacks is not the same as the ability to take control of a country. Like the exaggerated threats used before the war, the threat of a Zarqawi republic is unfounded. Congress and the public need to see through the smokescreen, and not be distracted from the real question at hand: how to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

President Bush first suggested that Zarqawi could take over Iraq in his October 6, 2005 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy. He repeated this assertion on October 25th, October 28th, and most recently on November 11th, in his Veteran's Day address. In his speeches he compared Zarqawi to dictators Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, and used alarmist imagery to describe Zarqawi's militant vision of "a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." He asserted that the only way to prevent a Zarqawi takeover was to stay in Iraq.

But a Zarqawi takeover is as false as Saddam's mushroom cloud.

First, while President Bush's rhetoric has compared Zarqawi to powerful dictators, Zarqawi's group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, is only a small player in the armed insurgency in Iraq. According to a January 2005 estimate by Iraqi intelligence service director General Mohamed Abdullah Shahwani, Zarqawi's group is a mere sliver of the non-Baathist insurgency, while Baathists make up the majority of armed insurgents. Zarqawi is too small to take control militarily of Iraq.

Second, Zarqawi is too unpopular to win an election. Zarqawi's group has declared "war against Shi'ites in all of Iraq," and Shi'ites make up 60% of the Iraqi population. Zarqawi's small group is no match for 16 million Shi'ites.

Third, Zarqawi has also alienated Sunnis. Most Iraqis -- including Sunni insurgent groups -- regard his methods of violence as repulsive. In response to the September 14th attacks that killed 112 Shiite day laborers, influential Sunni clerics in Iraq who have generally supported a Sunni insurgency, such as Sheikh Mahmud al-Sumaidaei, leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, strongly condemned Zarqawi. In 2004, during the build up to the siege in Fallujah, the Washington Post described how local insurgents in Fallujah who had been allied with Zarqawi had turned against him. Abu Abdalla Dulaimy, the military commander of the First Army of Mohammad, for example, said of Zarqawi, "He is mentally deranged, has distorted the image of the resistance and defamed it."

Fourth, Zarqawi isn't even Iraqi; he's a foreign opportunist originally from Jordan.

All the facts point to the conclusion that Zarqawi cannot and will not realistically take over Iraq. By making Zarqawi the face of the opposition, however, the White House is distracting us from the significant, real and widespread non-violent Iraqi opposition. According to a recent poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defense, 82 percent of Iraqis are "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops. On April 9, 2005, 300,000 Iraqis marched in Baghdad in one of the largest political demonstrations of the past two years to demand the withdrawal of all U.S. and foreign troops. The protest was attended mostly by Shi'ites, which is noteworthy as Shi'ites have the most to gain by the U.S.-backed Shi'ite-dominated government.

Opposition to U.S. military presence has also caught on in the Iraqi parliament. In June 2005, more than 100 members of the parliament, or more than one-third, signed a letter calling for "the departure of the occupation." In mid-September 2005, the 18-member National Sovereignty Committee in the Iraqi parliament issued a unanimous report calling for an end to the U.S. occupation.

Opposition to the occupation has taken hold in the United States too. The ABC/Washington Post poll has surveyed public opinion on the war regularly since March 2003. Responses to all pertinent key questions clearly show eroding support for the war. Support for the President's handling of Iraq has steadily fallen; belief that the war was worth fighting has fallen; belief that the number of U.S. casualties is an acceptable cost of the war has steadily fallen; belief that the war has contributed to U.S. long-term security has steadily fallen; and support for keeping forces in Iraq has steadily fallen. There are no exceptions to this trend.

Congress and the American public must not be distracted by the White House's latest scare campaign. Now is the time for serious discussions in policy circles on how best enact a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Congress could start by passing House Joint Resolution 55, a bipartisan bill that requires the President to produce an exit plan and the United States to begin withdrawing troops no later than the end of 2006.