IRAQ: Other Troublespots

January 27, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What are the other insurgency hotspots in Iraq?

The insurgency in Iraq is continuing in many cities outside of Falluja, even as U.S. and Iraqi forces finish up a major military operation there to kill or capture insurgent fighters. A second front has been opened in Mosul, where some 1,200 U.S. soldiers are battling to retake parts of the city from guerilla fighters. Insurgents are staging attacks in majority Sunni cities in central and northwest Iraq, as well as in the Sunni-dominated neighborhoods of Baghdad. In addition, some deadly attacks are occurring in the quieter Shiite majority areas south of Baghdad, as well as in the Kurdish-dominated zone in the northeast. Approximately 25 percent of Iraqis are Arab Sunnis, 15 percent are Kurds, and 60 percent are Arab Shiites. “The entire country is restive. I see very few islands of stability,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

Where is the worst violence taking place?

  • Mosul. On November 10, the second day of the Falluja offensive, insurgents stormed six police stations in coordinated attacks in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city after Baghdad and Basra. Hundreds of policemen fled, prompting the city’s authorities to call in U.S. and Kurdish reinforcements. A major U.S. military operation began November 16 to reclaim the city for the government. Mosul, some 250 miles north of Falluja, is a predominately Sunni Arab city in an area otherwise largely populated by Kurds. This will create a danger of interethnic violence if Kurdish militiamen are used to fight Mosul’s Sunni Arab insurgents, Katzman says. On November 12—perhaps in retaliation for Kurdish cooperation with U.S. forces—gunmen attacked the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two major Kurdish political parties, the Associated Press reported.
  • Baghdad. The capital continues to be one of the most violent cities in Iraq, and daily insurgent attacks have more than doubled since the start of the Falluja offensive. The Washington Post reported that on November 10 alone, U.S. forces “were assaulted 66 times [in Baghdad] by gunfire, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs, or car bombs.” Bombs have targeted marketplaces, Christian churches, and the U.S.-occupied Green Zone in the center of Baghdad. More than a dozen insurgents attacked the Polish Embassy in Baghdad with automatic weapons November 14. Sunni-populated neighborhoods appear to be providing safe havens for these insurgents, while Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in Baghdad, appears relatively quiet for the moment.
  • Baiji. This city of about 100,000 inhabitants some 130 miles north of Baghdad is a major industrial center and has the largest oil refinery in Iraq. It is located within the so-called Sunni triangle, a center of the Sunni Arab population. On November 14, clashes between U.S. troops and guerrillas in Baiji left 12 Iraqis dead and 25 wounded. The insurgents destroyed a key highway bridge and claimed the city, and U.S. troops called in air strikes and tanks.
  • Baquba. The predominately Sunni Arab capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad has a population of some 280,000. On November 15, U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on suspected hideouts on the outskirts of the city following a morning of intense clashes with militants. A U.S. military official said about 20 insurgents had been killed. Fighting also spread to the suburb of Buhriz, where guerillas attacked police stations and a U.S. military base.
  • Ramadi. This city of 150,000, 30 miles west of Falluja, remains an insurgent hub, experts say. It is the provincial capital of al-Anbar province—a vast, arid zone northwest of Baghdad largely outside Iraqi government control. Residents reported heavy fighting November 15 between insurgents and American forces. Some press reports indicate that many rebels who had fled Falluja were now in Ramadi.
  • Samarra. This mixed Sunni and Shiite city of 200,000 was reclaimed by U.S. and Iraqi forces from insurgent control after battles in September. A month later, insurgents began trickling back. Insurgents are now openly roaming in the city, and a wave of car bombs and mortar attacks Nov. 6 killed 17 Iraqi policemen.
  • Tal Afar. This city of 155,000 near the Syrian border is home to a mixed Turkmen and Sunni Arab population. On November 14, insurgents laid siege to several police stations in the area, partly demolishing one in a bomb attack, said Lieutenant Colonel Paul Hastings, an army spokesman. Frightened residents piled into cars and began fleeing the town. American soldiers battled an uprising in Tal Afar in early September; the insurgents laid low for a while, then returned.
  • Suwaria. Gunmen carried out near-simultaneous attacks November 15 on a police station and an Iraqi National Guard station in this town 25 miles south of the capital, the Associated Press reported. Five guardsmen and two policemen were killed, including the director of the Suwaria police station.

What is the level of violence in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The semi-autonomous Kurdish zone continues to be free of heavy fighting, but attacks by insurgents are continuing throughout the region. Saboteurs blew up a section of an oil pipeline in the northern region of Kirkuk November 15 and flames raged in four oil wells after a string of bombings the previous day, Iraqi officials said. A member of the National Assembly died in a car crash on November 14 after being ambushed by gunmen, and the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk survived an assassination attempt November 11 when a car bomb exploded as his convoy passed. Kurdish leaders in Erbil and Sulamaniya said November 11 they were preparing Kurdish troops in the National Guard to restore order in Mosul and Kirkuk; they will coordinate operations with the U.S. military. “We cannot stand by and let minorities be attacked, as they were under Saddam,” a Kurdish military commander said.

What’s going on in the Shiite areas?

While insurgents are striking in the predominately Shiite south of Iraq—killing Iraqi security forces on the roads and at checkpoints, blowing up pipelines and other oil infrastructure, and staging other attacks—the area’s cities have not exploded in violence. This is in sharp contrast to events in April, when Sunni insurgents in Falluja and Shiite fighters allied with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rose up simultaneously, wresting wide swaths of the country from government control.

Why haven’t the Shiite insurgents joined in?

The leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appears to favor the ballot box as the best way to gain power in Iraq for the Shiite majority, experts say. In scheduled January elections, Shiites would likely take the most seats—especially if the Sunnis boycott the process. In a recent statement, Sistani has called for an end to the violence in Falluja from both the insurgent and U.S. sides.

The younger, more radical Sadr continues to send mixed messages about his intentions. Sometimes he speaks in support of the Sunni insurgents, while at other times, he talks about joining a Shiite political coalition. Significantly, however, he has not enjoined his followers to take up arms. There is a great deal of public pressure on the Shiite leaders to more actively support the Sunni insurgents against the U.S. occupiers. On the other hand, if the momentum swings sufficiently toward the elections and political process, more Sunnis may participate in the vote, U.S and Iraqi officials say. If the two groups end up on opposing sides—with one favoring an election and the other boycotting and responding to the new government with violence—the risk of a civil war will be considerable, Katzman says. “Things are becoming more polarized,” he says.

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