August 06, 2000

Dagestan - Islamic Center and War Zone

Dagestan - Islamic Center and War Zone

First of all, one should keep in mind that the conflict in Dagestan and Chechnya goes back roughly 300 years. Russia's latest war with Chechnya actually began in neighboring Dagestan when over 1,000 Islamics declared a holy war on Russia for Dagestani independence. These individuals were members of the militant Wahhabi group who wanted to see Sharia law in Dagestan. The Wahhabis took advantage of Dagestan's mountainous terrain as it was ideal for their guerrilla style of warfare. Their ultimate goal was an independent, Muslim North Caucasus which controlled access to the Caspian Sea.

Dagestani Muslims are not militant by nature, unlike their Chechen brothers. During August of 1999, acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed to squash these rebels in two weeks. However, the Wahhabis proved to be tougher to beat and the conflict has drug on into the new millennium. Moscow, convinced that the rebels were maintaining bases of operation in Chechnya, began conducting military action back and forth across the Chechen - Dagestani border. As the war drug on, Moscow widen its scope to include putting down Chechnya's claim to independence from Russia.

The Islamic council of Dagestan is not recognized by Moscow; only the republic's elected parliament. During the summer of 1999, this council drew up and signed a declaration of independence and called upon Muslims in Chechnya to support their efforts. This declaration is reported to have been signed at a meeting held in one of the mountain villages of Dagestan, under the control of the rebel Wahhabi Chechens. The effort is aimed at making Dagestan and Chechnya a single Islamic state.

The Wahhabi movement dates back to the mid-1700s and was founded by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdula Wahhab. His battle cry was for all Muslims to return to a pure form of Islam and put forth by the prophet, Mohammed. Wahhab preached that Islam should be spread and rooted in a given culture by force. This ideal did take root in what is now Saudi Arabia where the Wahhabis are still centered. Eventually, Wahhab's teachings spread to other regions, including the North Caucasus.

Moscow hesitated, at first, to use total force against the Islamic rebels. The disaster that was the Chechen war of 1994 - 96, is still very fresh in the mind of the Kremlin and the Russian people. Russia has deployed artillery units and air power to the region where the guerrilla population has proven to be greater than anticipated. One of the tactics used by the guerrillas is to burrow their way into the mountains, creating a series of fortified tunnels in which to hide, store their supplies and fight from. The Russian Army's chore is to bombard these fortifications in hopes of driving the rebels out into the open.

The war around Dagestani towns, such as Chabanmakhi, is a game of cat and mouse. The rebels take a village and dig in. The Russian's shell them until they either run away or come out and fight. The numbers of military and civilian deaths and wounded mount daily. This has turned into the same type of war fought in 1994 - 96, in which Russia lost. The question is, how much time, money and souls can or should Moscow risk in this round of warfare with the Islamic rebels in Dagestan and Chechyna?

The conflict in Chechyna and Dagestan still rages on. It is anyone's guess as to when or how it will be resolved. Since the details change daily, I suggest you refer to Russian Culture Updates for the latest headlines.

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