Change is afoot within Iraq’s Sunni Arab community. The hangman awaits Saddam Hussein in the months ahead, and experts wonder if this event will galvanize or deflate the Sunni-led insurgency. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has sought to rehabilitate ex-Baathists and has allowed them to return to public life. And for the first time, a religious Sunni organization has embraced the possibility that Iraq may be split into three ethnically divided states. Meanwhile, the insurgency, comprising both homegrown and foreign elements, continues its ferocious campaign against Shiite and U.S.-led forces. The simmering conflict and mounting sectarianism have resulted in the internal displacement of tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs, according to a Brookings Institution paper.
What is driving the Sunni insurgency?
In general, Sunnis believe there is a Shiite plot to control Iraq. They remain suspicious of U.S. attempts to impose democracy because elections, assuming Iraqis vote according to their ethno-religious makeup, favor the majority Shiites. Shiites also comprise the bulk of Iraq’s security forces, which stand accused of organizing death squads and torturing Sunni prisoners. Other Sunni leaders fear the growing influence of Iran, where Shiism is the dominant brand of Islam, over Iraqi politics. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, Sunnis supported the reinstallation of a Sunni-led government in Baghdad, but now a growing number admit that is not possible and have tempered their goals to include more moderate demands like the rehabilitation of former Baath Party officials. Then there are those with region-wide aspirations, who favor bringing in more Arab states to back their demands and prevent Iraq from joining Iran’s orbit. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab political organization, recently issued videos of attacks against American Humvees in retaliation for Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, suggesting that some insurgents are motivated by struggles outside Iraq, too.
Do Sunni extremists support the U.S. presence in Iraq?
Generally speaking, no. Many Sunnis view the United States as having abetted the Shiite rise to power in Iraq and are waiting for a U.S. withdrawal to reassert Sunni control of the country. Yet others fear a U.S. withdrawal could trigger greater Shiite domination. “Sunnis are facing a situation with a lot of question marks and worries,” says Ahmed Hashim, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard University. “They don’t like the United States being there but the United States not being there poses a potential problem, too.”
Is the Sunni insurgency still growing?
Experts disagree. Nibras Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, says the Sunni insurgency is in trouble. “They’re finding it much harder to replenish their coffers and recruit new talent,” he says. “Younger and younger people are coming the ranks but with fewer skills. A lot of their urban guerilla abilities have bled out.” Yet Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues the insurgency, what he calls a “network of networks,” has adapted and even grown in its capabilities. “No blend of coalition counterinsurgent strategies, operations, and tactics has succeeded in substantially diminishing the insurgency,” he writes. The Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index estimates there to be between 15,000 and 20,000 insurgents in Iraq, of which between 800 and 2,000 are foreign fighters (al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose members comprise the bulk of Iraq’s foreign jihadis, claims it has 12,000 fighters).
How is the hierarchy of the homegrown insurgent elements structured?
Horizontally by various tribal, familial, and religious networks, experts say. “Kinship is most likely the critical social factor underlying Iraqi insurgent networks,” writes White. The insurgency has no one overarching authority but rather consists of a ragtag group of former Baathists, religious extremists of the Wahhabist or Salifist bent, and organized criminal leaders. A number of political organizations are part of the insurgency, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Army of Mohammed, and the Mujahadeen Army. Then there are those groups like Ansar al-Sunna and the Victorious Army Group that blend native and foreign forces and have grown more radicalized in recent months. Some of these groups participate or have ties to Sunni political leaders in Baghdad. Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation, says as the security situation on the ground worsens, these various strands have grown more united. “I think the persecution by the Shiites helped push all the Sunni resistance groups together against a common foe,” he says.
How have the insurgents’ tactics and strategies evolved?
Though hidden roadside bombs remain the most deadly weapon, recent news reports suggest a rise in the use of sniper and small-arms fire. “The insurgents are recruiting snipers and centralizing their instruction,” according to the New York Times, “meaning that the phenomenon is likely to grow.” Insurgents continue to carry out the bulk of their attacks in Baghdad, Anbar province, and areas north of the capital. Some experts say the spike in attacks against American forces in October reflects a concerted campaign by some insurgent groups to influence the November 7 midterm elections. U.S. officials, however, dismissed these theories, claiming the holy month of Ramadan typically resulted in higher casualty numbers.
What effect will the death of Saddam have on the insurgency?
“It will solidify the camps between Sunnis and Shiites,” Hashim predicts. “Sunnis will say [the verdict] is nothing more than a desire to satisfy Shiite’s quest for revenge.” Meanwhile, Jeffrey White writes that Saddam’s death will be “a mobilizing and potentially unifying event” for the insurgents as well as to everyday Sunnis. “As Iraq has become more violent and chaotic,” he goes on, “Hussein appears, at least to Sunni Arabs, as a more positive symbol than he did in the immediate wake of his regime’s collapse.” Yet others say Saddam’s death will weaken the insurgency by stamping out hopes some of the more radical ex-Baathist elements cling to of returning Saddam to power.
How are relations between domestic and foreign insurgent elements?
Increasingly strained. “They’re fighting over resources and fighting over turf,” Kazimi says. “Their agendas are becoming divergent. They are fighting and killing each other, resulting in some sort of backlash [among the Sunni population].” Hashim says that fighting over the summer caused many jihadis to question whether they were alienating too many Iraqi Sunnis. Yet others point to a bridging of the two groups. For example, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the most prominent group of foreign jihadis, headed by Egyptian leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, increasingly recruits Iraqis, which, as Rosen points out, makes “it easier for the other movements to cooperate.” Yet it remains unclear if the interests of homegrown versus foreign insurgents collide or coincide. Most recently, the Mujahadeen Shura Council, which houses al-Qaeda in Iraq and various religious insurgent groups, announced the establishment of a separate Sunni Islamic state in central and northern Iraq. But as Evan Kohlmann, a terrorist analyst, writes in CounterterrorismBlog, there are signs of political infighting and “already serious questions about the eagerness of other Sunni mujahadeen in Iraq to join alongside them.”
Where do the sympathies of most Iraqi Sunnis lie?
With the Sunni resistance, Hashim says. The Sunni population’s primary fears are insecurity and the emergence of Shiite-run militias. Sectarian violence has forced thousands of Sunnis to flee their homes and neighborhoods and live as internally displaced refugees. The Brookings Institution claims Sunnis living in Shiite-dominated areas are the most affected. Sunnis also do not support the installment of an Islamic caliphate, as al-Qaeda in Iraq professes, but nor do they favor a Shiite-run government backed by the United States. Finally, there are growing fears of Iraq splintering into three semi-autonomous states, whereby Sunnis would be cut out of the oil profits.
How do average Sunnis view the U.S. presence in Iraq?
They, like nearly all Iraqi sectarian groups, want American troops out. “We’re unpopular with everyone,” says CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle. “The only difference polls show is how soon they want us to leave.” Iraq’s elected Sunni officials, however, say privately they do not support a U.S. withdrawal, or redeployment to Iraq’s perimeter, because they know America’s presence is the only thing preventing an escalation in sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. “When the Americans leave,” says Rosen, “maybe you won’t call it an insurgency anymore and it will be much more clearly a civil war, with battles over Baghdad and Kirkuk and any other mixed cities, so Sunnis will only be more organized I imagine, and they will get much more assistance from neighboring Sunni states.” In the short term, therefore, some Sunnis may view the U.S. presence as a force for stability. In the eastern city of Tal Afar, for instance, the Third Armored Cavalry was seen by local Sunnis as a bulwark against the Iraqi Security Forces, which were seen as the enemy. But as Biddle points out, “Becoming beloved by Iraqi Sunnis is a lost cause.” If Sunni insurgents are serious about driving the U.S. forces out of Iraq, he says the fastest way would be to agree to a ceasefire. “If they did, in six months we’d be gone,” he says.
How do ex-Baathists view government’s offers of rehabilitation?
Not positively, experts say. On November 7, Iraq’s DeBaathification Commission proposed to parliament to reinstate most ex-Baath Party members and allow them to return to their previous government posts. But “most of them scoff at it,” Hashim says of the Sunnis. Maliki’s government, Rosen adds, is not “sincere about bringing in Sunni Baathists” and, even if it were, “there is no Iraqi government, so focusing on it as if it can change things is a mistake.” Yet some experts say the offer of Baathist rehabilitation indicates the Iraqi government views the war against the insurgency as winnable. “Some of the thinking is, ‘We can be magnanimous in victory,’” says Kazimi.