IRAQ: The Iraqi Insurgency

February 16, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Will the Iraqi insurgency quiet down after June 30?

Probably not. Violence caused by insurgents has surged as the June 30 handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government approaches. A campaign of car bombings, assassinations, sabotage and armed attacks has left dozens dead and hundreds wounded since June 1, and many experts warn that the situation is unlikely to improve after the handover. "I think we’re going to see violence through the [transition] period and after the transition occurs, with armed and violent political factions" contesting for power, says Jeffrey White, an associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. On June 17, Iraq’s interim interior minister, Falah Hassan al-Naqib, said martial law could be declared after June 30 if the insurgency continues.

How many people have died in the surge of violence?

More than 90 people were killed and over 300 wounded in Iraq from June 1 to June 17, according to news reports. There is now an average of one car bombing per day and some 35-40 violent engagements per day in Iraq, White says. Three senior government officials were assassinated between June 10 and June 15. Anyone seen to be cooperating with U.S. and coalition efforts to exert control over the country has become a target in what experts call a deliberate campaign to destabilize Iraq.

Who is behind the insurgency?

It is made up of a confusing array of groups, some with defined leaders, and others loosely connected. It also includes criminals--some of whom have been paid to kill foreigners--and ordinary Iraqis who have been radicalized by the occupation. "We’re in a situation without precedent, where we’ve been fighting a second war against insurgents for over a year now, and we don’t know [exactly] who the enemy is," says Andrew Bacevich, international relations professor at Boston University. Experts say that both Sunni and Shiite groups are participating. Sunnis make up some 20 percent of the Iraqi population and were favored by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Many live in Baghdad and north and west of the capital. Shiites, some 60 percent of the population, are based largely in the nation’s south.

Who are the Sunni insurgents?

Experts say they include:

  • Baathists, former members of Saddam Hussein’s military--including members of the Special Republican Guard, the Fedayeen Saddam militia, and intelligence officers--and other former regime leaders, known as FRLs. Kenneth Katzman, a senior Iraq analyst at the Congressional Research Service, says the Baathists were the original force behind the insurgency. "They were the brains behind getting the insurgency started," he says. "They advised, directed, and funded it."
  • Foreign fighters, including Syrians, Saudis, Egyptians and others working with al Qaeda-linked terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He called for violent attacks against Americans and those who work with them in a February letter said to be written to Qaeda members.
  • Iraqi Islamic radicals, including members of the Kurdish Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Islam.
  • Young Iraqi men, driven to violence by the occupation and recruited by Baathists into the insurgency. Katzman says these younger fighters are now taking a more central role in the violence, and increasingly using tactics--including suicide bombings--characteristic of Islamic radical elements in the broader Arab world.

Who are the Shiite rebels?

Most of the fighters--whose attacks have been calmed by a recent truce--appear to be aligned with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, which experts call a centrally directed, well-organized, armed presence of one branch of Shiite nationalism. Katzman says Sadr’s followers are predominantly young, poor Shiite men from the Baghdad slum of Sadr City who agree with his message of armed resistance. These fighters see public figures like theGrand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s preeminent Shiite cleric, as too accommodating to U.S. and international interests.

Are the insurgent groups working together?

Many experts say the recent violence has been caused by a mixture of these forces, but that they’re not formally cooperating. "There’s no coherent organization [behind the insurgency]," says Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel who has been to Iraq twice in the last year to examine the security situation for the Pentagon. "Each [group] is in it for their own purposes. It’s an alliance of convenience against the Americans."

What are the insurgents’ goals?

Broadly speaking, all the insurgents share one similar goal: "They want the Americans and the new government to fail," says Bernard E. Trainor, a retired Marine Corps general and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Beyond that, most experts say, it’s difficult to predict what each group wants. "If they actually do succeed in getting the occupiers out, what would they do next?" says Katzman. "You could have a free-for-all." Some groups, such as the Baathists, may be fighting for a chance to be part of the political system, some experts say. "They want into the tent," Anderson says. "They’re secular opportunists. They don’t totally want the Americans out, because they realize there’s a lot of money to be made. But they want a seat at the table." Others, particularly the foreign fighters and terrorists, seek instability and chaos. Many of them would like to establish a Taliban-like system in Iraq so they can operate and train their fighters there, Anderson says.

What’s the status of the Sadr-led insurgency?

Coalition forces closed down Sadr’s newspaper Hawza al-Natiqa ("the vocal seminary") in Baghdad March 29, saying it was inciting violence. That act, along with the arrest of Sadr lieutenant Mustafa al-Yacoubi, sparked a bloody insurgency that began in April. After 10 weeks of fighting U.S. forces in Najaf, Kufa, Karbala, and other southern cities, Sadr issued a statement June 16 calling on his troops to go home. "Each of the individuals of the Mehdi Army, the loyalists who made sacrifices ... should return to their governorates to do their duty," a Reuters translation of the statement said. Many experts say Sadr, whose outspoken resistance to the U.S.-led occupation has made him a hero to Iraqis, now plans to become a legitimate political figure who will run in the expected January 2005 elections. Sadr’s fighters are "quiescent, very much simmering below the surface, and ready to spark again at a moment’s notice," Katzman says.

How are U.S. forces reacting to the insurgency?

White says the U.S. military in Iraq has moved into a defensive mode after months of aggressive offensive operations to find terrorists and fight the insurgency. He calls the new role a ’hedgehog’ strategy: dig in and try to get through the transition process. "[U.S. troops] are going to retreat to their garrisons, and they’ll only be called out if there’s real rebellion," says Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some experts warn that strategy will not deal with the roots of the violence. It is "basically tantamount to surrendering control to the insurgents and giving them a free hand," White says.

Are the Iraqi security forces ready to stop the insurgency?

Most experts say no. "On a scale of one to ten, they’re a one," says William L. Nash, the John W. Vessey senior fellow and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. By the end of next year, Nash says, the Iraqi security forces could improve to "maybe a six." In the April violence nearly half the Iraqi police and civil defense corps--an American-trained Iraqi security force--deserted their posts, according to news reports. Nash estimates it will take two to five years before Iraq’s armed forces are capable of guaranteeing security in Iraq with no international assistance.

What is the status of the Falluja-based insurgency?

After insurgents killed and mutilated four contractors working for the coalition March 31, U.S. forces led an incursion into the city that left some 100 U.S. soldiers and several hundred Iraqis dead. U.S. forces backed off May 1 with a truce deal that placed Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a Sunni Baathist and former general in Saddam Hussein’s army, in charge of a new, 1,000-member Falluja Brigade responsible for the city’s security.

Are insurgents now using Falluja as a base of operations?

Experts disagree. Falluja today is "an insurgent camp and safe haven," Katzman says. Anderson calls the city "a hotbed and a sanctuary" for foreign fighters, who are more willing to die for their cause than the Baathists charged with containing them. "The Falluja Brigade is not strong enough to go in and get rid of [the insurgents]," he says. But Trainor says the insurgents are not using the city as a base of operations against coalition forces. "They can call it a victory, but we’re big enough to take that," he says.

Will the interim government disband private militias?

It seems unlikely, many experts say. On June 5, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)issued Order 91, which states that some 100,000 members of armed militias affiliated with the country’s nine major political parties would be integrated into the national military, police forces, or state-controlled private security companies. All other armed groups would be illegal. Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, calls the order ineffective. He says that many of the militias will change their names or uniforms, but remain essentially intact. "The Kurdish peshmerga [fighters] will become members of the new Iraqi army, but have the same commanders," he says. "The Badr Brigade [a militia tied to a Shiite political group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq] is now the Badr Reconstruction Corps, and they have ’licensed’ their weapons." The Mehdi Army, which was not included in the agreement, is intact, he says. "We’re moving forward with armed militias. It’s an agreement on paper only," Gardiner adds.

What are the prospects for security after the handover?

Many experts are not optimistic. After June 30, "there won’t be security, except where we provide it," Gardiner says. "We’ve unleashed the factors inside Iraq so that they are beginning to jockey for power." Trainor agrees, saying, "I think there will be a great effort to destroy the new government as each party moves to secure their own goals." But retired Marine Corps colonel Anderson says that if the new government can control the security situation enough to hold elections and show Iraqis some real improvements, "we’ve got a chance of muddling through this thing."

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