Iraq's Insurgency Has Proved Itself


By Nancy A. Youssef

Knight Ridder
May 18, 2005

Three weeks of relentless attacks in Iraq have given ample evidence that Iraq's nascent democratic process hasn't yet undermined the insurgency. The attacks also show that the insurgents can adjust their tactics in response to the changing political environment, Iraqi, U.S. and independent authorities said. The insurgents are increasingly coordinating attacks, employing more remote-control devices to detonate explosives and shifting their focus from U.S. troops to the local security forces that have begun to take a more active role defending the nation, U.S. officials said.

While the capabilities of the insurgency are seen in the daily carnage, Iraqi and U.S. authorities are only now grasping the character of the enemy, or, more precisely, the enemies. Since Iraqi officials named their new government on April 28, more than 500 people have been killed in 70-plus attacks. Most of those killed were Iraqi civilians.

Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said there are fewer insurgents than in the past but they're conducting more sophisticated attacks. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, estimates there are up to 20,000 inveterate insurgents in the country and 162,000 trained Iraqi security personnel, which is consistent with earlier U.S. government estimates. Gen. Mohamed Abdullah Shahwani, the Iraqi intelligence chief, estimated in early January that there were 40,000 hardcore insurgents. It's unclear how U.S. or Iraqi authorities count insurgents.

Boylan said as attacks against Iraqi security forces increased, those targeting U.S. forces decreased. "They are trying to drive a wedge between the Iraqi people and their new government," he said. While that goal appears indisputable, it hardly explains the composition, motivation or ultimate aims of the many insurgent groups. There's no consensus on how many fighters are from other countries - or what the relationship is between them and Iraqi fighters. Shortly after the Fallujah offensive in November, then-interim Iraqi Interior Minister Faleh Hassan al Naqib said no more than 6 percent of the fighters there were foreign, the last time public officials gave an estimate.

U.S. and Iraqi officials break down the insurgency into four major groups, all dominated by Sunni Muslim Arabs: Baathists from the former regime of Saddam Hussein who want to resurrect the old government; nationalists who want a state absent of foreign intervention; Sunni Arab Islamists fighting a holy war against occupiers and against domination by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority; and foreign jihadists, who think Iraq is a good battlefield to fight the United States.

The Iraqi government and U.S. authorities believe the groups are decentralized and loosely working together, but they say they don't know how the groups coordinate. All insurgents "share a common enemy, the government of Iraq and democracy, so they cooperate with each other," said Sabah Kadhim, an Interior Ministry spokesman. There's nothing to suggest that the groups are assigned specific tasks or areas, Kadhim said. Instead, they are fluid, mobile groups.

Decentralized and working independently in a cellular structure, the insurgent groups are extremely difficult to defeat. Bruska Noori Shaways, the deputy defense minister, and military officials believe Baathists are the most likely to coordinate the groups because they remain the richest and best organized in Iraq. Shaways believes the Baathists are hosting foreign insurgents.

Behind much of the insurgency, and almost certainly creating the welcoming environment for foreign terrorists, is anger created by the progressive marginalization of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. Despite comprising roughly 20 percent of Iraq's population, Sunni Arabs ran the government during Saddam's regime. Their power collapsed abruptly, with the end of the war and when former administrator L. Paul Bremer began governing the country and purging it of Sunni control. Most recently, the Sunnis said they felt marginalized when they said their supporters couldn't vote safely during the election. They complain that the newly elected, Shiite-dominated government isn't including them.

Many Islamists among the Sunni Arabs also recoil at rule by Shiites, whom many Muslims consider to be an apostate sect. And the close ties between Iraq's elected rulers and neighboring Iran have created suspicions. While foreign extremists associated with al-Qaida may hope to use Iraq as a battleground to humiliate the United States and resurrect Islamic rule under a new caliphate, Iraqi Sunni Arab groups haven't presented their own political program. The Sunnis are internally divided, with no single group able to represent them effectively.

The fact that the surge in violence began one day after the new government was named suggests that the insurgency has no plan other than to thwart any government, Iraqi government officials said. "In the absence of the government, they have no political aim," said Homam Hamoodi, a National Assembly member and leader in the United Iraqi Alliance slate.

Even so, Sunni Arab groups have some common demands, namely a timetable for when the multinational forces will leave. Others want to be included in the new political process. Still others consider any government elected under occupation illegitimate. Those groups want their attacks to show just what little control the new government has over its country's security.

The new government officials said they're not surprised by the attacks. Several pointed out that during past handovers - such as when the Governing Council took over under Bremer and when former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government began - the attacks increased. But they conceded that mistakes have been made. Iraqi officials said the three-month gap between the Jan. 30 elections and the naming of the government contributed to the surge in violence. "The insurgency found this environment where there was no decision-makers a good environment to increase their attacks," Shaways said.

Independent observers said that by filling government posts largely based on a politician's ethnicity or sect further fueled sectarian tensions, empowering the insurgency. In the new government, six ministers are Sunni Arabs, while seven of the 275 National Assembly are from the minority sect. The Sunnis "are looking to highlight their disenfranchisement," said James Denselow, a researcher on Iraq at The Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent London-based research group.

Still, Iraqi officials say the insurgency's relevance is waning. They note that its disjointed attacks haven't struck any major government arteries. "They are getting desperate," Hamoodi said. Kubba said Iraqi officials can reduce the number of attacks once they receive more tips from the public, adding that the government is establishing a hotline. Shaways and Hamoodi said the government needs to build up its security forces, noting that the police already are conducting pre-emptive raids on suspected insurgents. They predicted the number of attacks will drop within a month.

But some are skeptical, saying the battle is a political one, not one that can be won by soldiers and police officers. "If the world's most powerful armed forces cannot deal with the terrorists, it's hard to imagine the Iraqi security forces can," Denselow said. Instead, Denselow said the government must take away the insurgents' message and include Sunnis in the political process. The future of the insurgency depends on "how the constitutional drafting committee brings Sunnis into the process," he said. "That is the only possible way" to disarm the insurgency.

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