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IRAQ: Status of Iraq’s insurgency

Author: Lionel Beehner
September 13, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What is the status of Iraq’s insurgency?

Despite some political progress, Iraq’s insurgency shows few signs of waning, experts say. The most recent attack—a series of explosions in Baghdad that began with a suicide car bomb and left at least 152 dead and hundreds wounded—marks the worst day of violence in the capital since March 4, 2004, when coordinated suicide bombs outside Shiite mosques killed 181 and wounded 573. Over the past few months, the number of attacks by insurgents, on average, has held steady at around seventy per day, down from their peak of nearly 150 per day just before the January 30 elections but still slightly higher than during the relative calm that followed the election, when attacks averaged around forty per day. Car bombs and suicide attacks also remain high.

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With important political milestones ahead—including an October 15 referendum on Iraq’s constitution and parliamentary elections slated for December—some experts expect an upturn in violence in the coming months. “ Certainly the pattern the past two years has always been for the insurgency to increase its attacks during these critical milestones,” says Peter Khalil, former director of national-security policy for the Coalition Provisional Authority. The U.S. military, along with Iraqi security forces, have stepped up their efforts to drive the insurgents from strongholds such as Tal Afar, where nearly 400 rebels were arrested in a recent sweep.

If the new constitution passes, is it likely to quell the insurgency?

Probably not, experts say. “Under any circumstance, the core element of the insurgency will continue,” says Jeffrey White, Berrie defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “[The constitution] may weaken their hold on Sunnis, but the insurgency is embedded in the Sunni community, and entrenched elements will continue to fight.” A lot also depends on the Sunni voter turnout in October’s referendum on the constitution, White says. “If large numbers of Sunnis come out and vote in large numbers, and vote yes, then that’s a signal there are lots of Sunnis ready to join the political transformation process legitimately.”

What appears to be driving the Iraqi insurgency?

More than two years after the inception of the insurgency, experts remain divided on what the principal force is fueling it. Experts agree the insurgency comprises two main groups of fighters—former Baathists and foreign jihadis—united by their desire to disrupt the political process and drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. But within the insurgency are various ethnic and ideological strands driven by their own unique motivations.

What are some of these motivations?

Iraq specialists and counterinsurgency scholars have floated a variety of theories about the goals galvanizing the various insurgent groups. Among them:

  • A return to Baathist rule. Experts say hard-line loyalists of Saddam Hussein, including former high-ranking military or intelligence officers of the Baath Party, may be seeking to regain power through a so-called “third coup.” In 1963 and 1968, Baathists came to power in Iraq by taking control of the Iraqi military and seizing political power. The Baathists now fighting in the insurgency are a powerful group, well-funded and stocked with military officers trained during Saddam Hussein’s regime in conventional urban warfare. But even Baathists not directly involved in the fighting have some experts worried. “The Baath Party strategy has always been to get control of the security forces,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service. Katzman theorizes that some former Baathists joining the Iraqi security forces are waiting until the political process fails and Iraq becomes further destabilized. They will then emerge—perhaps violently—and present themselves as the only solution to the nation’s security problem.
  • Establishment of Islamic rule. This appears to be the goal of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, and other Arab countries, experts say. By sowing chaos, these Islamist militants hope to force U.S. forces out of Iraq and create a fertile recruiting ground, not unlike Afghanistan in the 1990s, from which to train and recruit jihadis. Their ultimate purpose is to restore an Islamic caliphate, a theocracy based on Islamic law that for twelve centuries spanned the Muslim world. “They’re thinking decades in advance, and they see Iraq as the first nation in the set of dominos,” says Thomas M. Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. These jihadis are coming into Iraq from throughout the region, but the majority hail from Saudi Arabia. Once in Iraq, some foreign fighters join the terror network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Pentagon officials say foreign jihadis, though comprising only 10 percent of the insurgency, carry out most of the suicide bombings targeting Iraqi civilians.
  • Nationalism. “It’s the strongest force [in insurgencies],” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a May 14 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, citing the success of the North Vietnamese and other insurgent movements. Nationalism is also what motivates some of Iraq’s insurgents, many experts say. These include Iraqis who, after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, were fired from their military or other government jobs but do not favor a return to Saddam Hussein’s secular form of Arab socialism. Most of these nationalists are Sunnis who fear a Shiite-led government, support a strong state run by Sunnis, and want U.S. forces out of Iraq quickly. Some experts say these fighters are less likely to target Iraqi civilians or engage in suicide bombings.
What other factors explain the insurgency?
  • Organized crime. News reports suggest a rise in insurgent attacks related to organized criminal activity. Bruce Hoffman, an insurgency expert at the RAND Corporation, says the kidnapping of civilians has been common in postwar Iraq, but “we only notice it more now because they’ve been kidnapping foreigners.” These attackers are motivated more by greed than politics. Some are leftovers from the 100,000 to 200,000 prisoners Saddam Hussein released before the U.S. invasion. Others are what Steven Metz, director of research at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, calls “casual insurgents”: out-of-work Iraqis drawn to crime because it pays. Detonating an improvised explosive device can pay $100 to $200, Metz says; killing an American can pay upwards of $1,000. There are around twenty criminal gangs operating in Iraq, according to a recent report by Olive Security, a British security-consulting firm. Many of them kidnap high-level Iraqi officials or foreigners and then sell hostages to the highest bidder, experts say; other kidnappings are subcontracted out by militant groups.
  • Tribal feuds. Prominent throughout Iraq’s rural regions and the so-called Sunni triangle, extended families and clans command strong loyalty and are a common source of group identity among Iraqis. It’s unclear how much of the recent surge in violence stems from tribal leaders, but as Metz points out: “Local elites recognize that in a secular, modernized Iraq, their power would be challenged.”
  • Revenge. Some Iraqi civilians join or collaborate with the insurgency for more personal reasons: they can’t feed their families or they lost loved ones during the war. “There’s a need to prove their manhood,” Metz says. “One can’t overemphasize factors like honor and justice in this culture.” These civilians may take up arms because they are fed up with the U.S.-backed government’s inability to provide basic staples like security, running water, or electricity.
  • Collusion by neighboring countries. Many of the countries on Iraq’s borders— Iran and Syria in particular—are believed to be indirectly abetting the insurgency, experts say. The United States and Iraq accuse Syria of not doing enough to prevent foreign jihadis from crossing its 380-mile porous border with Iraq. On September 12, speaking to reporters, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad accused Syria of allowing al-Qaeda-style training camps to operate within its borders. There’s also growing unease in the region over the role of Iran among Iraq’s Shiite ruling majority. Tehran’s primary concern, according to a March report by the International Crisis Group, is “to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat, whether of a military, political, or ideological nature.” Some Middle Eastern countries may be provoking a degree of instability in Iraq because they do not want a democracy on their doorsteps, many experts say. More importantly, these states may not want to see Washington succeed in its experiment to remake the Middle East to its liking.
What is the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy?

According to June 23 Senate testimony by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. strategy has shifted “from conducting security operations to a heavier focus on training, equipping, and assisting the Iraqi forces.” But, he added, the 140,000 U.S. forces based in Iraq will continue “disrupting terrorist sanctuaries, such as Fallujah, and keeping [the insurgents] on the run.” The most recent counterinsurgency sweep occurred September 10-11 in Tal Afar, a heavily Sunni-Turkmen city sixty miles east of the Syrian border, which was believed to have held around 500 insurgents. Although 156 rebels were reported killed, many of the insurgents were able to flee the city via underground tunnels. After a similar strike by U.S. forces in Tal Afar last year, insurgents melted away, only to later reclaim the city once the U.S. military pulled out.

Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, compares such counterinsurgency campaigns to attacking water with one’s fist. The trouble, he says, is the city only remains “secure as long as large numbers of coalition forces are there, but then you have this return of the insurgents. The net effect over time is really minimal, if anything.” Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor, worries this style of attack will only exacerbate tensions among ethnic Iraqis as well as tensions with the United States. “The U.S.-Iraqi government policy now appears to be to de-urbanize the Sunni Arab heartland by destroying Sunni cities one after another,” he writes in his blog on Middle Eastern politics. “The problem with such a tactic is that it will not actually reduce attacks on the U.S. military or the Iraqi police. It will just seed ethnic hatred for decades to come.” Khalil adds that the U.S. military strategy must be backed up by an economic strategy to defeat the insurgency. “In a lot of those towns, if you don’t follow up with lots of money for economic reconstruction, you’re doomed to failure,” he says. Khalil points to recent successes by U.S. forces in Sadr City and Najaf, where military campaigns were followed by infusions of capital to rebuild the regions.

What other counterinsurgency strategies have been proposed?

There have been a number of alternative strategies tabled in recent months. Among the most widely discussed:

  • Wesley Clark, a retired Army general and former NATO commander, in an August 26 Washington Post op-ed recommended “winning the hearts and minds of the [Iraqi] populace through civic action, small-scale economic development and positive daily interactions.” He also urges the Pentagon to engage Iraq’s neighbors more in Iraq’s political and economic progress, to forswear establishing permanent bases in Iraq, and to add up to 10,000 Arab-American interpreters to bolster communication between U.S. troops and Iraqis, and to improve intelligence-gathering. He favors a gradual U.S. pullback of forces into reserve roles that will be eventually phased out.
  • Krepinevich, writing in the September/October edition of Foreign Affairs, favors what he calls an “oil-spot strategy”—establish protected enclaves in parts of Iraq, perhaps Baghdad or Mosul, and then expand these zones of security, similar to how an oil spot spreads. This tactic worked for Britain during its Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. Krepinevich says his strategy “would require a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more [U.S. troop] casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq, albeit at far lower force levels than are engaged at present.”
  • Cole, in an August 22 blog entry, outlines a ten-point plan that, among other suggestions, includes lowering the U.S. troop profile by pulling forces out of major cities, offering more military aid to protect key government officials, granting amnesty to all former Baathists with no blood on their hands, holding regular meetings with the foreign ministers of Iraq’s neighbors on issues like multinational assistance, and providing reconstruction funds to Iraqi firms only, not to U.S. corporations. Like Clark, Cole also favors a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Have Iraq's insurgents shifted tactics?

Some experts say attacks by insurgents are increasingly motivated by sectarian tensions, as highlighted by a stampede killing nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims in late August, reportedly set off by rumors of a Sunni suicide bomber within the crowd. Further, insurgents, particularly foreign jihadis, appear to be increasingly striking soft targets like Iraqi civilians and security forces instead of U.S. forces. July saw the most fatalities of Iraqi police and soldiers since the start of the war. Insurgents have also increasingly employed so-called swarm tactics, rapidly converging from several directions on a single target. These swarms often begin with a series of car bombs, followed by a rush of fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

In addition, news reports suggest a trend by insurgents toward suicide attacks and car bombs. The frequency of such suicide attacks has picked up since the end of April, when Iraq’s new government was formed. The number of car bombs (which are mostly suicide attacks) in Iraq has increased from roughly twenty per month last summer to 135 per month in April and May this year, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. Khalil, however, warns against reading too much into short-term trends and numbers. “You can’t give metrics to the insurgency because it’s so fluid,” he says.

What explains this surge in suicide attacks?

Experts point to several factors. The obvious answer is their effectiveness, says Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. “[A suicide attack] kills six times as many people as regular terrorist tactics. It wounds twelve times as many. And it really gets a lot more press,” she said in a CNN interview July 18. There’s also a clear linkage between the suicide bombings and the strategic success of Iraq’s insurgency, says Peter Bergen, Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden. Suicide attacks have hobbled reconstruction efforts in Iraq, as exemplified in 2003, when bombings of the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations prompted both organizations to pull most of their personnel out of Baghdad. Suicide bombers are also efficient. “It doesn’t take as much training as, for example, putting a bomb on a subway car in such a way that nobody will notice,” says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. A secondary explanation, says Scott Atran, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, is that kidnappings and beheadings, both commonplace last year, have fallen somewhat out of favor. “Suicide bombings have a religious and ideological aura that beheadings never did,” he says, adding that beheadings were “not seen as a legitimate means of slaughter or sacrifice for God.”

Does Iraq's insurgency appear to be following the pattern of past insurgencies?

It still may be too soon to tell. Insurgencies, after all, are generally fought over years, not months, so their evolution cannot be measured in such a short time period, experts say. “In modern military history they have lasted, on average, ten to fifteen years, and many—Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam—have gone more than a quarter-century,” wrote Thomas X. Hammes, a former Marine colonel, in an April 21 New York Times op-ed. 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.

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