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IRAQ: Quelling the Insurgency

Author: Sharon Otterman
September 23, 2004

What is the plan to quell Iraq's Sunni insurgency?

U.S. officials say that they are developing a strategy with the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) to take control of cities in the so-called Sunni Triangle that are currently ruled by insurgents. The strategy calls for a combination of military muscle and political negotiation, with Iraqi forces playing a key role. A major offensive is not expected until the end of the year, when the fledgling Iraqi army should be stronger, U.S. commanders say. In the meantime, Iraqi officials are attempting to deal directly with Sunni leaders in the region to avoid a full-out military confrontation.

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Where is the Sunni insurgency taking place?

The heart of the insurgency appears to lie in Anbar province, a vast, arid area approximately the size of Wyoming that lies to the north and west of Baghdad. Insurgents also appear to operate more or less freely in parts of Salahaddin province and Diyala province, both north of Baghdad. The region, a traditional stronghold for Saddam Hussein, was the last to fall to U.S. forces, with relatively little fighting. Secular Baath Party officials and Iraqi military elites blended into the population, and Sunni Islamist fundamentalists began to assert authority. At least two key cities in Anbar—Falluja, with 300,000 residents, and Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, with a population of 400,000—are said to be controlled by insurgents. In Samarra, a city of 150,000 in Salahaddin province, power is shifting back and forth between the insurgents and American-backed leaders.

Insurgent activity is not limited to the Sunni triangle. Sunni insurgents have also claimed responsibility for a string of deadly bombings in Baghdad—including one on a police station September 14 that killed 47 people—as well as dozens of other bombings that have resulted in scores of deaths across Iraq. They are also attacking oil pipelines and other vital infrastructure, severely disrupting the nation’s economy.

Who is leading the Sunni insurgency?

“The insurgency is now driven mainly by Islamists,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. “There are some foreign fighters, but the engine of this is Iraqi Islamists mirroring the tactics of al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” The Islamists kidnap and behead Americans, Iraqis, and foreigners working with them; detonate suicide car bombs; and set off roadside explosives. They have instituted “Taliban-like rule” in Falluja, according to The New York Times. Also active in the insurgency are Baathists, who a year ago were believed to be leading the effort, but “are in a subordinate position right now,” Katzman says. Overall, the Sunni insurgency appears to be growing in strength and resourcefulness. “The enemy is becoming more sophisticated in his efforts to destabilize the country,” said General Richard Myers, commander of the joint chiefs of staff, at a press briefing September 7.

Who else is participating in the Sunni insurgency?

A broad mix of fighters who resent the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Pamela Hess, reporting for United Press International from Ramadi, wrote that among the insurgents were “smugglers whose economic lines are getting severed by coalition patrols; tribal sheiks angry over their loss of power with the ouster of their patron Saddam Hussein; jihadists of various nationalities who flock to Ramadi ‘to get their war on’; nationalists who resent the occupation; citizens who lost friends or relatives in the war or post-war and are seeking revenge; and mercenaries—desperately poor Iraqis who have no hope of jobs in the shattered economy who get paid $50 or $100 to shoot at Americans.”

How are U.S. forces responding in Anbar?

Primarily with periodic air strikes on suspected militant hideouts. On September 13, for example, U.S. missiles struck a house in Falluja allegedly used by the network headed by fugitive terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. U.S. forces also patrol the province in armored convoys, attempt to secure the roads and other strategic locations, collect intelligence on insurgents to direct U.S. air attacks, and support the efforts of Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, the head of the IIG, who has been seeking a political solution to the insurgency. Marines operate out of heavily fortified bases in the region, but patrols have not entered Falluja since the end of a three-week siege in April. In Ramadi, they make occasional patrols.

Why don't coalition forces move in immediately and take out the insurgents?

Because heavy Iraqi casualties would likely result, further inflaming local tensions. In April, U.S. forces tried to eliminate insurgents in Falluja after four Western contractors were killed and mutilated. The urban fighting caused hundreds of Iraqi casualties, many of them civilian, as well as heavy U.S. losses. It also aroused anti-U.S. sentiments and spurred Sunni and Shiite insurgents to cooperate more than they had previously.

What are the other options for dealing with the insurgency?

One option is to attempt to weaken it by making political and economic deals with tribal and other leaders in the Sunni areas in exchange for their loyalty. This is Allawi’s current strategy. Another option is to use a combination of targeted military attacks, economic isolation, and the threat of a major military offensive to pressure the insurgents into cooperating. This is the essence of the offensive strategy currently being worked out by U.S. military planners and Iraqi leaders, General Myers said.

What political efforts are being made?

Allawi has been holding private meetings with tribal and other leaders in Falluja, Ramadi, and Samarra in an attempt to get them to break with the hard-core Islamist insurgents. He’s offering a government amnesty—at least to those insurgents who haven’t directly participated in fatal attacks—as well as pledges of jobs and other economic benefits. Allawi says he has not yet reached an agreement with any of the groups, but he insists that some of the representatives are “changing horses ... and taking the amnesty seriously,” The Washington Post reports. Some experts say the chances of this tactic working in the current atmosphere are low. “Allawi is trying to speak with the insurgents, but with very little leverage,” Katzman says.

What else is being done?

U.S. authorities are planning to shift about $3.5 billion of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds granted by Congress last fall away from major reconstruction projects and toward programs designed, among other things, to build Iraqi security forces and create short-term jobs. As of September 1, $886 million of the total $18.4 billion had been spent. Iraqi unemployment currently stands at between 30 percent and 40 percent.

How likely is it that reconstruction will weaken the Sunni insurgency?

It’s unclear. General William Nash, the director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the United States and Iraq have to succeed in “the long, slow battle of economic and political reconstruction.” His long-term strategy for ending the insurgency includes giving more authority and resources to the Iraqi government so it’s clear that it is in charge, and waging an information campaign to convince the Iraqi public that the insurgents “are not fighting the Americans, they’re fighting Iraq.” The focus of Nash’s plan—and the “hearts and minds” strategy being pursued by U.S. military commanders—is to win over the majority of Iraqis by showing them they can have a future in the new Iraqi state. A September 2 International Crisis Group report also emphasizes the importance of reconstruction. “Iraq desperately needs an economic recovery strategy to escape its vicious circle of hardship, discontent, and violence,” it says.

Some experts are skeptical. “I don’t believe the insurgency is about economic development. I believe it’s all about power,” Katzman says. Ultimately, jobs or no jobs, the insurgents will fight to strengthen their hand in negotiations over who will control land and resources in the new Iraq, he says.

Will the election scheduled for January 2005 quell the violence?

Many experts are doubtful, because they question whether Sunni insurgents will participate in the election or abide by its results. While U.S. military commanders say they plan to secure Anbar’s cities before the election, Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, operational commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, said September 6 that the “cancer” of anti-American militancy in places such as Falluja would not be permitted to derail the elections. A contingency plan, Metz told the Los Angeles Times, is to bypass Falluja—and perhaps other violent enclaves—and concentrate on holding elections in Baghdad and other population centers where hostility is lower. But the result of that plan, many experts say, could be a deeply divided Iraq in which the Sunni area is further marginalized.

Could violence lead to the dissolution of Iraq?

It’s unclear, but some experts say that civil war and/or the breakup of Iraq are possible. A new report released by Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs says the fragmentation of Iraq is the “default” scenario at this point. Katzman says the ultimate answer for Iraq may be a new power-sharing agreement among the country’s power-holders—Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds; Islamists and secularists—that may result in the less-than-ideal solution of an Iraq fragmented into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish areas of control. Retired Army Colonel Robert Killebrew, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) September 7, predicted that elections will be followed by a civil war; Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also speaking at AEI, said the most likely scenario is that we will “end up with something looking a fair amount like Lebanon.” At best, the Royal Institute report says, the United States and its allies can hope for a “muddle-through” scenario: holding the country together but falling short of a full-fledged democracy friendly to the West.

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