The Life and Death of Abu Deraa, and why I learned to love the Surge

Until the end of 2006, Abu Deraa was the nom de guerre of one of the top leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia in Baghdad, a man many knew as the “Shiite Zarqawi”.

“Abu Deraa,” his nom de guerre, means “Father of the Shield”; his real name is Ismail al-Zerjawi. Other than his name, little else is known about him or his whereabouts. It is believed that Abu Deraa was a refugee who came to Sadr City from the southern marshes where he had worked as a fishmonger. During the rule of the Baath Party, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and destroyed Shiite villages as punishment for their uprising after the first Gulf War—this caused many Shiites, like Abu Deraa, to move to the Sadr City slum in Baghdad. Abu Deraa is allegedly in his forties and is married with two children. (November 16, 2006)

The Telegraph

Less than six months after an American airstrike ended Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s campaign of Sunni terror, an equally brutal fanatic has emerged on the other side of the religious divide. Abu Deraa’s trademark method of killing is a drill through the skull rather than a sword to the neck, but his work rate is just as prolific as the former al-Qaeda leader’s and shows the same diabolical artistry.

In the past year, he and his followers are thought to have murdered thousands of Sunnis, their victims’ bodies symbolically dumped in road craters left by al-Qaeda car bombs. The rise of monsters such as Abu Deraa is another blow to American hopes that Zarqawi’s death, in June, would halt the sectarian violence, which now regularly claims 100 lives a day. (Nov. 12, 2006)

The Jamestown Report

Iraqi Sunnis accuse Abu Deraa of killing thousands of Sunnis, not just political figures and militant Salafists, but ordinary civilians as well. One of his associates recounted to an Australian newspaper how Abu Deraa lured Sunni men to their deaths. The associate explained how Abu Deraa commandeered a fleet of ambulances and drove them into a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad calling on all young men to come and give blood, announcing on a loud speaker that “the Shiites are killing your Sunni brothers” (The Age, August 22). The young men went to the ambulances and were trapped and killed. According to one of the many rumors circulating around the country, Abu Deraa offers his victims a choice in their murder—suffocation, shooting or being smashed to death with cinder blocks. Many of the murdered victims have been found in the al-Seddah sector of Sadr City, an area which Iraqis have nicknamed the “Happiness Hotel.” Victims are found in shallow graves, many with signs of torture.

Yet Abu Deraa has also captured and killed high-value targets. A video recorded on a telephone camera and circulated in Shiite areas shows a man believed to be Abu Deraa conducting the kidnapping and assassination of Saddam Hussein’s lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi. The video shows al-Obeidi emerging from a private residence, where he was undergoing interrogation, into a narrow alleyway. Al-Obeidi pleaded with his captors on the video, saying that he would lie beneath their feet and do whatever they wanted. Abu Deraa then tied al-Obeidi’s hands behind his back and placed him in the back of a white Toyota pickup truck. Al-Obeidi was paraded through Sadr City, where the crowd threw stones at him and taunted him with Shiite slogans. He was hit on the back of the neck, an extreme insult in Arab culture. After being paraded through the slum, the vehicle stopped and Abu Deraa fired three shots into al-Obeidi’s skull (The Age, August 22). Abu Deraa is also thought to be responsible for the July abduction of female Sunni MP Tayseer Najah al-Mashhadani. Unlike al-Obeidi, she is still believed to be alive. (Nov. 16, 2006)

Times Online

Each day the police find more bodies dumped in shallow graves on wasteland known by Iraqis as the macabre “Happiness Hotel”. They have been kidnapped, tortured and murdered after being accused of attacking Shi’ite shrines or of involvement in the daily bombings which are tearing Baghdad apart.

The video shows Deraa, a short, well built and bearded man in his forties, pouring the cola down the camel’s throat. “All of it. Drink to the bottom,” he tells the gulping animal, asking his guards whether they paid for the bottle or took it.

Behind the video is a sinister story. The significance of the camel is that Deraa has vowed to sacrifice it in celebration if he succeeds in killing Tariq al-Hashimi, the Iraqi vice-president. (Jan 21, 2007)

In the days leading up to the 2006 elections, Americans were increasingly angry at a U.S. government that could not win the peace in Iraq, or even manage to keep Iraqis from getting murdered willy-nilly by head-hunters, car bombers, those who strapped bomb belts to retarded children, fiends with power tools, and the other inhuman filth who carved their horrors out of human corpses. Things were bad in Baghdad and getting worse fast.

The Americans admit that their influence on the ruling Shiites have dwindled and cannot force Maliki to crack down hard on Abu Deraa and death-squads.

“That prevents us from doing things that we might want to do, like going after Abu Deraa more aggressively,” a senior US official told the Telegraph on condition of anonymity. (Nov. 12, 2006)

Even the most revered Shiite Ayatollah in Iraq no longer controlled his followers.

Iraq’s most revered Shiite scholar Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has recently admitted his inability to prevent a civil war, lamenting that he no longer has an influence on Shiites who have switched allegiance to militant groups and death squads. (November 12, 2006)

As a final insult to the ability of American forces and the Iraqi Army they trained, Abu Deraa was finally killed, not by the IA, not by the Americans, but by Sunni terrorist organizations that are competing with each other for the credit.

In a statement released today, Monday, December 4, 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the killing of Shi’ite militia commander Abu Deraa. The claim comes three days after a statement released by the Islamic Army in Iraq that also claimed responsibility for the killing of Abu Deraa. In conflicting reports, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed to have killed Abu Deraa alongside his entourage, six individuals and six four-wheel drive cars, in the north of the “province of Baghdad” on November 25th, while the Islamic Army in Iraq reported destroying an ambulance he was travelling in undercover through the city of Balad, no date given. (December 4, 2006)


The rise of Abu Deraa cannot be blamed on anyone but him and his sponsors in the Sadr organization and SCIRI, but the situation that made it possible for him to rise to prominence was created by U.S. reluctance to police Iraq. Combined with an emphasis on withdrawing U.S. troops, this lack of policing, combined with all the criminals set loose from the prisons by Saddam Hussein before his government fell, led quickly to looting, kidnapping, robbery, and sectarian torture and murder. As things got more dangerous in Sunni strongholds in Baghdad and Anbar province, demonstrating the U.S. forces’ inability to get results, the Shiite dominated Iraqi government began to restrain U.S. forces from acting against the Badr and Sadr organizations, including Abu Deraa’s kidnapping and murder gang. In February 2006 someone, most likely Al Qaeda in Iraq, blew up the Golden Mosque at Samarra and got the sectarian strife they were looking for. Zarqawi was the most famous of the Sunni terrorists, and Abu Deraa was the best known of the Shiite terrorists. By June, when U.S. forces killed Zarqawi with a bomb, Abu Deraa had become a figure of terror equal to Zarqawi. In the months that followed, the repeated inability of U.S. or Iraqi Army forces to catch or kill Abu Deraa was an embarrassment.

The democracy that the U.S. brought to Iraq, while cherished, was losing its shine as security deteriorated in Baghdad. If people do not live until voting day they cannot vote. If people are not alive neither are they free. The rate of emigration in Iraq was nearing 9,000 per week, as fearful Iraqis fled for Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, anywhere that would allow them across the border. The U.S. strategy of training Iraqi Army and Police, while hiding out on huge bases in the countryside, was not working fast enough. Staying the course and drawing down troops wasn’t working. Something had to change, the U.S. had to have a stake in providing security, and Iraq had to agree to police enforcing the law equally against all offenders, no matter what tribe or clan or mosque they were a part of. Just as the first step in punching someone is to rare back and make a fist, the first step in mounting an offensive is to gather the forces. That means more troops. As the offensive surges, as areas are pacified and local Iraqi Police and Army are stationed there permanently the offensive will be able to spread to new areas. Most of the eighteen Iraqi provinces are safe already, no more dangerous than American states like Ohio or Montana. Pacifying the violent provinces is doable, and once pacification is complete U.S. forces can be drawn down once again. In post-Nazi Germany after WW2, U.S. forces of 10,000 were sufficient to keep the pacified country peaceful, as the elements of the Marshall Plan worked to rebuild all of Europe. Given a peaceful post-Baathist, post-al-Qaeda Iraq, U.S. occupation and redevelopment forces could be brought down to 10,000 once again. Even if troops level out at more than that number, such a status quo would be acceptable to Americans.

Compare results of the Surge plan to what would happen if the U.S. continued to draw down troops. Sectarian violence would escalate. Sunni and Shiite flight from Baghdad would escalate. Towns and villages openly ruled by Sunni and Shiite Jihadists would become increasingly common. Attacks on U.S. forces and civilians would increase in savagery and frequency, and morale would fall even lower. As corpses and suicide bombs punctuate the news, each vacant, bloodstained eye would be another bloody testament and accusation of America’s inability to bring peace. After U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, at least part of Iraq would become a Jihadist state similar to the Taliban Afghanistan. In less than ten years, such a terrorist state would need to be invaded again. In the meantime, Iran would have developed nuclear weapons, allied with Pakistan, and sponsored Iraq-style terrorism in Afghanistan to drive NATO out. In another ten years Afghanistan would be even worse than it was in 2001. Guarded by nuclear-armed Pakistan and Iran, it would be a formidable nut to crack.

Let us not make the mistake of running before we win the peace… again.

The U.S. fled Somalia in 1993 and in 2007 went back in. The U.S.S.R. destroyed Afghanistan in the early 80s, and after leaving the U.S. stopped caring. In 2001, the U.S. had to go back into Afghanistan. In 1992, the U.S. left Saddam in charge of Iraq. In 2003 the U.S. had to go back. The U.S. has played yo-yo with Haiti most recently in 1994 and 2004. After the U.S. fled Lebanon during the civil war, and Israel withdrew from the south, Syrian forces and Hizballah filled the vaccuum leading to the Hizballah war against Israel of 2006. The lesson is that winning wars is easy, especially if winning is defined down far enough, but without winning the peace war will once again raise its ugly head.

The Surge is a way to win the peace. Give the Surge a chance, and by so doing give a lasting peace a chance.

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2 responses to “The Life and Death of Abu Deraa, and why I learned to love the Surge

  1. Consider all those ambulances that Abu Deraa used to sneak around and murder people with. Remember how he was killed? He was in an ambulance.

    In related news, Iraq’s deputy minister of health has been arrested for being involved with Shiite terrorism.