Global Policy Forum

Trajectory of Violence


By Faleh Jabar*

Al-Ahram Weekly
April 14-20, 2005

The new multi-ethnic, multi-religious political class in Iraq wishes to curry favour with voters not bombers, writes Faleh Jabar.

Two years have elapsed since the deposed president's statue crushed down at the Firdaws Square, at the centre of Baghdad. The Iraqi army had been defeated in the south and the middle of the country; military formations in the northern, predominantly Sunni, provinces negotiated surrender and went home. In the eyes of US planners the landscape seemed promising for a thorough liberalisation scheme to transform Iraq after the US experience in post- WWII Germany and Japan.

That hope proved wishful. As soon as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began in May 2003 his twin track of dismantling the old power structures (viewed as a copy of Nazi Germany), and liberalising state, society and economy, opposition flared up, both violent and peaceful. The newly-born freedoms allowed and encouraged militant Shia groups led by the young Muqtada Al-Sadr, a conservative populist Islamist, to take power and install an Iranian type of mullarchy (theocracy). Old regime's commanders, officers and technocrats, who anticipated being reintegrated in the new order, reacted fiercely upon exclusion. The former indulged in peaceful street politics, but prepared for armed opposition; the latter imitated armed opposition but prepared for political action. Hopes (or fears) of these trends coming together were grounded in the false assumption that the two were fighting for a national cause of liberation. In fact, the former wished to go beyond the old system into a religious utopia of their own; the latter were in search of restoration, of the past regime or past privileges. They were worlds apart. Since then these two major forces of violence adjusted their thinking, their composition, their tactics and their strategies.

ORIGINS OF VIOLENT MILITANCY: With the demobilisation of an already defunct army and police force, the ratio of security forces to civilians fell overnight from a 34 per 1000 under the ancient regime, to less than three per 1000 under the CPA. Security vacuum was glaring. Worst still, the country was awash with arms. Some 4.5 million pieces, varying from anti- air-craft missiles to mortars and assault rifles, were available to civilians as old army depots were turned into free shopping zones. Another destabilising social element was the rise in criminal violence. In addition tribal war lords and private militias exacerbated volatility.

The political vacuum was also a crucial factor. The CPA was an occupying force with which the population could hardly think of cooperating. The absence of an Iraqi government was a source of bitterness and misgivings. The Governing Council (GC) of Iraqis (formed on 13 July 2003) had no powers, and was seen as mere appendix to the CPA. The GC's very structure, based on community quotas, was a driver of conflict. No government, no intelligence, no police, no army. This was a recipe for the civil war that was not.

Loss of sovereignty, however bitter, was one way or another less crucial in the eyes of various Iraqi players than the new distribution of power that empowered hitherto disenfranchised communities and groups (Shia, Kurds, or liberals and leftists), and marginalised the masters of yesterdays (the Baath lot). Bitterness expressed at national disempowerment was in essence resentment at this new redistribution of power.

Angry and suspicious neighbours made their contribution to violence. So did trans-regional networks of Sunni fundamentalists, who had now two emotive causes of mobilisation: Iraq and Palestine. A barrage of hostile Arab and Iranian media made things even worst.

Who is in the business?

The first signs of armed militancy came in June, spreading over most Sunni provinces, including the mixed metropolis, Baghdad, and increasing slowly but steadily from few attacks per day, to an average of 25 a day in September 2003, then again up to an average of 65 per day by the end of that year. This was a systematic effort sustained by a multitude of forces. At least five different and sundry groups have been taking part in post-war armed conflict.

Old institutional forces (military commanders, intelligence and security officers, party and state high functionaries) and Sunni Salafi groups conceived of change as a zero sum game. With operational expertise and vast cash resources (an estimated $4 billion robbed at gunpoint from the central bank), the institutional groups were the driving force, hiding behind Salafi groups, native and alien. The whole movement relies on the new generation of the loyalists drawn mainly from tribal Sunni domains, who are united by ideological ties, kinship bonds, economic interest and community of guilt. While Salafis are minor allies, the loyalists allowed them to come to the forefront for tactical reasons. These networks soon recruited tribal warlords and mobilised tribal extended families. In addition, mafias of the underworld were also contracted to do the dirty business: kidnapping, assassinations and the like for as low payments as $200 per slain head. While Salafis have an ideological global war against the West (Crusaders), the loyalists had a political agenda: retrieving old privileges.

The focus of early attacks was the Multi-National Forces (MNF); gradually attacks broadened their scope to include economic targets (oil pipelines, power stations, water plants, etc). All foreign presence was also assaulted, including the UN offices. Not without a Salafi touch, Christian and Shia shrines and churches came under fire. So were all civil employees in service. The aim was to bring reconstruction to a halt, create an environment of intimidation that would paralyse life.

While the bulk of the population yearned for peaceful transition, they were not willing to come out against violence. Fears of retribution by insurgents or reluctance to serve under foreign administration (the CPA) were clear. Falluja became a symbol of insurgency; so were Baquba and Mosul, all of which had strong tribal bonds and extensive old Baath networks. As the death toll of Iraqi civilians reached some 16,000 by mid- 2004, security became number one demand among them.

NAJAF AND FALLUJA: Insurgency seemed to flourish with the rise of the Mahdi army of Al-Sadr. Benefiting form extensive mobilisation in shanty towns in Baghdad, Kut, Omara, Basra and Kufa towns, Al-Sadr intensified his oppositional efforts against all Shia competitors as against the MNF. Reaching a dangerous level of militarisation, confrontation flared up in April 2004, which increased Al-Sadr's popularity. In August he staged another insurgency, taking refuge in the holy shrines of Najaf. His adventure was opposed by a majority of Shia and the Al- Sadr's militia was successfully dismantled and decommissioned.

Exactly in the same period, Falluja staged two successive mutinies, first in April and second in August 2004. The first was a disaster for the US in military and political terms; the second was a military and political disaster for insurgents. The weakening of the insurgency was a crucial factor for the successful culmination of the January 2005 elections.

US RESPONSES: It took the US diplomacy and military a year or so to adjust to the deteriorating situation. They first dismissed violence as sporadic and marginal; they admitted it was well- organised and well-coordinated. US policies shifted from thorough liberalisation to thorough stabilisation. Counter- insurgency replaced reconstruction; Iraqisation of security was accelerated, and legitimisation through the ballot was observed despite massive pressure from Sunni politicians. This signaled a desertion of the old plan to a slow transfer of law enforcement and defence to Iraqis over three to four years. With priority given to law enforcement (police) over defence (the army and the National Guard) this capacity building aspect was flawed. Police could not coup with heavily-armed insurgents. More often than not, police units deserted or surrendered to insurgents. Priority was also given to infantry as the best means for counter- insurgency condition. Iraqis (Iyad Allawi's government) wished to and, in the end, did have their own heavy armour to support their own infantry. This boosted morale as Iraqi infantry were seen by the public as patriots fighting for their own country rather than as an extension to the MNF. Indeed the first Iraqi armoured units deployed before elections were applauded by the public. Iraqisation of defence and security are still half way through.

INEVITABLE DECLINE: Prior to the constituent elections, armed attacks decreased, largely due to increasing native security capacity, as well as improving living standards (basic monthly salaries increased from $3 to $90). After elections legitimacy of the political process was established. The failure of insurgents to derail this phase of transition triggered differences in their camp. Several Sunni groups that boycotted elections realise now their strategy of boycotting the ballot was self-defeating. Insurgents further alienated themselves by targeting Shia communities (the massacre of Hilla, Babylon in March this year).

No more were Iraqis willing to accept the term "resistance", let alone mujahid (holy fighter); they are now using the Western term "terrorists" to describe all insurgents. The icy wall inhibiting cooperation with the security forces also melted down. As a result, whole sectoral networks of insurgency have been dismantled, as was the case in the Haifa Street (Baghdad) which is quite now.

Violence will definitely continue, but the majority of Iraqis believe it has no future. The new multi-ethnic, multi- religious political class wishes to curry favour with voters not bombers. This reflects both faith and readiness to come out against all those who oppose a Western-enforced democratisation by violent means. Palestinian elections, Egyptian reforms and pro-democracy mobilisation in Lebanon have also encouraged Iraqis that they are on the right track.

About the Author: The writer is an Iraqi sociologist and author of many books on Iraq. His latest publication is : The Shi'ite Movement in Iraq , London, Saqi Books, 2004.

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