Global Policy Forum

In Iraq's Insurgency, No Rules, Just Death


By Ehsan Ahrari*

Asia Times
May 13, 2005

In the very initial phase of evolution, Iraq's insurgents decided that Iraq would not be governed by the American-appointed government. After the elections of January 30, they also determined that a government elected under the American-written constitution would not govern it. But how are they are going to impose their will? Their decision all along seems to be that one side has to be either eradicated or defeated.

The American side cannot be eradicated, but the insurgents seem to have decided that they will not be defeated, as long as they are willing to die for their cause. One US Marine recently described the battle with insurgents in Ubaidi, 15 miles east of the Syrian border, by observing, "They came here to die. They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope. All they wanted was to take us with them." How do you develop an effective strategy to fight those who follow no rules, except their willingness to die for their cause? No one on the American side seems to have an answer.

The insurgents in Iraq comprise a variety of groups. First and foremost are the Ba'athists and pan-Arabists, including persons of civilian bureaucracy and armed forces under Saddam Hussein. They had careers and retirement plans. They had guaranteed sources of income to support their families. Even in the uncertain political environment of Iraq under a dictator, they did not harbor grave doubts about having a secure means of earning a living, as long as they did not antagonize the wicked regime. Today, almost 90% of them have no job, no income and no future. Thus, they form a majority of the Iraqi insurgency. A large number of army personnel are reportedly well trained in urban warfare. They are eager to destroy the current evolving system, which, from their point of view, is highly illegitimate because it is created by the United States.

Then there are the Sunni Islamists who wish to see their country ruled under the banner of Sunni Islam. There is also the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, whose goals of having an Islamist Iraq may not be too much different than that of the Sunni Islamists, like Ansar al-Islam, and its offshoot, Ansar al-Sunnah. They are driven by the jihadi frame of mind. The "super-Infidel" is occupying the land of Islam, according to this perspective, and should be driven out, no matter the cost. In this frame of reference, there is no compromise, just death, either for them, or for their enemy, or for both. Consequently, Iraq has gone beyond a point where it could be described as "hell".

To fight the enemy, America cannot have any strategy other than its willingness to fulfill the desire of the insurgents. One has to paraphrase 18th century US statesman Patrick Henry's famous statement: "Give me liberty or give me death." In this instance, the Iraqi insurgents are not interested in living under what the Americans call a system based on liberty. They have chosen death as a price of destroying that system. In the process of dying, they are also willing to take a whole lot of Iraqis and Americans with them. This is not a reality that America wanted to create in Iraq.

Still, the Bush administration is poised to stabilize Iraq through increased reliance on the indigenous security forces, while keeping a high operational tempo that is aimed at catching the insurgents off guard and capturing or killing their top leaders. It is hoped that the capture or eradication of the top leadership of the insurgency will eventually lead to the defeat of that movement. The American thinking is sound; however, the tactics used might produce contrary results.

No one seems to recognize the fact that the intense pace of the Iraqi insurgency is constantly keeping US forces off guard. Since the Shi'ites are not as hostile to the Americans as the Sunnis, someone in the American military chain of command has decided to rely on Shi'ite security forces to bring about law and order. A news dispatch published in the Washington Post on May 8, is a case in point of how destabilizing some of the tactics used by the US and the Iraqi government are. The government side is currently using Shi'ite Iraqi forces for security purposes in the Sunni city of Ramadi, which has remained one of the hotbeds of the Sunni insurgency. From the perspective of forces of stability, since there is no Sunni government in Ramadi, they are forced to use the Shi'ite forces, "including ad hoc militia groups such as the Defenders of Baghdad - as are flowing into Ramadi as part of the latest strategy by Iraq's central government and the US military to stem insurgent violence here".

The above dispatch makes some very important pro and con points. It states, "As a short-term counterinsurgency strategy, such forces have several advantages. First, they and their families are less subject to intimidation than when the forces are in their own area. Also, as Iraqis, they are far more familiar with the territory and less likely to be viewed as occupiers than are US troops." However, it goes on to note "... by pitting Iraqis from different religious sects, ethnic groups and tribes against each other", this tactic "also aggravates the underlying fault lines of Iraqi society, heightening the prospect of civil strife ..."

As sectarian strife between the Shi'ites and Sunnis is increasing, one wonders who in his right mind would devise such a dangerous tactic only to attain short-term security? The insurgents might not be wrong if they were to read this as a desperate move.

The decision of the Bush administration not to engage in constructive dialogue with Iran and Syria is another tactical mistake of utmost significance. According to some reports, Syrian intelligence is actively involved in recruiting and training Iraqi insurgents. Iran is also accused of being involved in similar activities. However, given the fact that such reports are coming from Kurdish sources, one wonders how credible they really are. After all, the Kurds have a lot to lose if the current formula for the evolution of democracy in Iraq were to fail.

Regardless of whether such reports are credible or aimed at promoting the partisan perspectives of the Kurdish groups in Iraq, the US government must engage Iran and Syria if it is serious about stabilizing Iraq. As long as those two countries equate the emergence of a stable and democratic Iraq as a threat to their respective national securities, they would do everything to minimize the chances of the emergence of that reality.

How much worse do things have to get in Iraq before they get better? No one has a clue, except for the insurgents. They seem to have concluded that a Western-dominated Iraq will not be the beginning of a new phase for them. They want to stop the emergence of that reality. That is why they follow no rule other than dying for their cause, and take with them a whole lot of others who oppose them.

About the Author: Ehsan Ahrari is an independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. His website:

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