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IRAQ: Insurgents' Tactics

Author: Lionel Beehner
April 27, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Have Iraq's insurgents shifted tactics?

It's unclear. In the months after the January 30 elections, insurgent attacks had grown more sophisticated and larger-scale, but were rarer, experts say. A few military analysts suggested the insurgency might be weakening. The Pentagon, buoyed by the encouraging signs, considered pulling one-third of its 142,000 troops from Iraq within the year, according to the New York Times. The lull in violence, however, proved short-lived. Since early April there has been a steady uptick in insurgent activity as well as a reversion back to suicide attacks, car bombs, and kidnappings, particularly those targeting Iraqi civilians and security forces.

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How sharply have attacks increased?

Insurgency attacks number around 50 to 60 per day, according to the Pentagon. General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a news conference April 26 that the number of attacks was about the same as a year ago. Overall, attacks are down from their peak of nearly 150 per day just before the January 30 elections. But the number is still slightly higher than during the relative calm that followed the election, when attacks averaged around 40 per day.

Why are attacks on the rise?

Some news reports suggest the failure to form an Iraqi government has left a political vacuum that has hampered counterinsurgency efforts. Other experts point to the cyclical nature of insurgency violence. Jeffrey White, the Berrie defense fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, says the number of attacks dropped in February and March last year as well. Insurgencies are generally fought over years, not months, so their momentum cannot be measured in a short time period, Thomas X. Hammes, a Marine colonel, wrote in a recentNew York Times op-ed. "Insurgencies are very long struggles. In modern military history they have lasted on average 10 to 15 years, and many--Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam--have gone more than a quarter-century," he wrote.

How has the insurgency evolved?

In the following ways:

  • Attacks are increasingly focusing on Iraqi civilians and security forces instead of U.S. forces. Over the past six weeks, nearly 200 Iraqi security forces have been killed in what U.S. military officials say is a spike in anti-Iraqi attacks. Meanwhile, strikes against U.S. forces have dropped by 22 percent since the January election. In March, 40 U.S. soldiers were killed, the lowest monthly casualty rate in over a year.
  • Many of the insurgent attacks in recent weeks have grown more sophisticated and better-organized. For example, on March 20, a group of 40 to 50 insurgents ambushed an American convoy just outside the capital. Then, on April 2, a multi-pronged assault on the Abu Ghraib prison, reportedly carried out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq, involved 40 to 60 insurgents and detailed planning. On April 11, some 40 insurgents attacked a U.S. Marine base near the Syrian border. The worst attack in recent weeks occurred on or

    around April 20 in Madaen, a town south of Baghdad. News reports said that 50 to 150 massacred Iraqis, many of them Shiite civilians, were found in the Tigris River; details of the attack remain murky.

  • Car bombs are growing even more popular among insurgents, some experts say. On April 23, a pair of suicide car bombs outside a police academy in Tikrit killed seven Iraqis. Later the same day, twin car bombings outside a Shiite mosque in Baghdad left at least 23 Iraqi civilians dead. Despite frequent checkpoints along roads, car bombs are difficult to intercept. "It's basically a guided missile," says a Department of Defense official who prefers not to be named. "The only limiting factor with these bombs is the willingness of insurgents to blow themselves up."
Does this evolution follow the pattern of past insurgencies?

It may be too soon to tell, experts say. Insurgencies generally undergo three phases: the first is the organizational and recruiting phase, which is largely nonviolent; the second phase entails guerilla-style hit-and-run attacks, as well as attempts by insurgents to grab and hold territory; and phase three involves larger, more conventional force-on-force attacks against the government in charge. Experts disagree over whether the Iraqi insurgency is following a similar pattern, and if so, which phase the insurgency has entered. "It's not proceeding along the classical lines of what people consider a Maoist insurgency," White says.

Why might insurgents prefer larger-scale attacks?

"Insurgents are developing a strategy to see how far up they can ratchet the size of their forces before [U.S.] air power vanquishes them," says Walter P. Lang, former head of Middle East Affairs at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Other experts, including Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service, fear these attacks, particularly the recent kidnapping in Madaen, may be intended to spark a sectarian war. "This is a new dimension," says Katzman. "The insurgents are taking a more systematic approach--one widely predicted, I might add--that borders on ethnic cleansing."

What do larger-scale insurgent attacks mean for U.S. forces?

They prefer them to smaller skirmishes. Experts say U.S. forces are historically more comfortable fighting an insurgency that engages the enemy head-on with large-scale force. "When they stand and fight us from a fairly conventional standpoint, they present us with a fairly conventional target to engage and fight," says the Department of Defense official. "Terrorists and guerillas have a hard time with stand-up fights," wrote James S. Robbins of the American Foreign Policy Council in the National Review.

What other developments have occurred in the counterinsurgency campaign?

Despite the recent spike in insurgent activity, the U.S. military has had increasing success pushing rebels, particularly foreign fighters, out of larger cities, experts say. This forces the insurgents to congregate in rural areas where there are fewer places to hide. U.S. troops have also ramped up their intelligence-gathering efforts among Iraqi citizens, who have grown increasingly troubled by insurgency violence.

What are the insurgents' goals?

They vary, experts say. The large majority of insurgents are Sunni nationalists who want to derail the U.S.-backed, Shiite-dominated transitional government. There are also some groups with "a much more aggressive belief that Iraq should be an Islamist state on Sunni terms," said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a November 2004 interview. The aims of foreign-born jihadis under the sway of Zarqawi are less clear. Some experts say their goal is to make Iraq a foothold in the Arab world from which to export Islamic fundamentalism abroad, much like Sudan was during the 1990s. Others say they have no concrete political objective beyond sowing fear and chaos.

--by Lionel Beehner, staff writer, cfr.org

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