Is There a Rift in Iraq’s Insurgency?

January 12, 2006 12:07 pm (EST)

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U.S. officials in Iraq claim to be holding talks with Sunni Arab members of the insurgency, according to recent news reports. The talks coincide with a recent spike in suicide bombings that have left more than 200 dead. With Iraq ’s permanent government set to get off the ground and the United States looking to draw down its forces in 2006, the Sunni-led insurgency shows no signs of waning. Yet there appears to be signs of strain between the insurgency’s local and foreign components, a rift that U.S. officials are hoping to exploit.

Negotiating with the enemy

U.S. officials say talks with Iraqi insurgents are nothing new but are only now being reported in the press. In the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion, there were talks between ex-Baathists and U.S. officials in Mosul. Military officials later negotiated, unsuccessfully, with Moqtada al-Sadr, who led a Shiite insurgency against U.S. forces in Najaf in 2004 before agreeing to a ceasefire. More recently, before parliamentary elections in December 2005, U.S. Marines met in Ramadi with tribal leaders, many with ties to the local insurgency, to broker a security deal. “Every insurgency is defeated politically,” says a senior Pentagon official, who prefers not to be named.

But can this strategy work? Experts are unsure. On one hand, “once an insurgency gets underway, there can never be a military solution,” Toby Dodge, a London-based expert on Iraq , told the Financial Times, “There has to be a negotiated settlement.” On the other hand, “you can’t just go and have a chat with these people and try to strike a deal,” says a Washington-based Middle East expert who preferred not to be named. “You have to know who you’re talking to and know they’re willing to enter the political process and not destroy it.” Another problem, experts say, is that no one fully understands this insurgency or comprehends its command structure. “The issue,” says Jeffrey White, an insurgency expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “has always been whether the Sunni leaders who come forward and say they have contacts with the insurgency actually have those contacts or simply are using this to enhance their own status.”

Local insurgents have grown disillusioned by the indiscriminate car bombings and suicide attacks preferred by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the organization led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

U.S. officials are reportedly in contact with a number of high-ranking Sunni officials, in addition to local leaders, acting as middlemen to the insurgency, including Tarik al-Hashimy, head of the Iraq Islamic Party. Hashimy told the New York Times that negotiations have been hampered by the insurgents’ demands for a U.S. timetable for withdrawing its forces, something the White House has so far refused. Much of the behind-the-scenes negotiations with insurgents are occurring against the wishes of the Shiite-led leadership in Baghdad, experts say. According to the Times, Shiites were further incensed by the United States’ “goodwill gesture” to release twenty Sunni detainees, including Satam Quaood, a former henchman of Saddam Hussein. 

Divided they stand

News reports suggest U.S. officials may be trying to exploit a rift in the insurgency’s ranks. The insurgency—a ragtag collection of Sunni nationalists, Islamic extremists, ex-Baathists, and common criminals—has shown signs of division in recent months. Local insurgents have grown disillusioned by the indiscriminate car bombings and suicide attacks preferred by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the organization led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Many of al-Qaeda’s attacks have targeted Sunni civilians.

Take the events of January 5, among the most violent days in post-war Iraq. The largest attack occurred in the insurgency stronghold of Ramadi. A suicide bomber, most likely an operative of Zarqawi, blew himself up along with seventy police recruits. Beyond the sheer brutality of the act, the bombing was significant because many of the victims were Sunni Arabs looking to sign up for Iraq ’s predominantly Shiite police force. U.S. military officials say these kinds of attacks, however gruesome, may help their cause by turning Sunni Iraqis against the foreign elements of the insurgency loyal to Zarqawi. “This is the best thing to happen to us lately,” says the Pentagon official. “There is potential to turn the Sunni insurgents against the foreign fighters. That’s an avenue that is being worked.” White agrees. “The attack in Ramadi was pretty interesting because it was in the Sunni heartland and affected Sunni tribes and killed locals,” he says. “This could eventually lead people to eventually inform on [Zarqawi].” Even Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, warned Zarqawi by letter last fall that his televised beheadings and massive attacks would not win the “media battle” for the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis. 

Foreign versus homegrown insurgents

Regardless, Zarqawi has ramped up his efforts to disrupt the political process and orchestrate mass-casualty suicide attacks. Of the estimated 20,000 insurgents in Iraq, between 700 and 2,000 are foreign-born jihadis, most of them loyal to Zarqawi, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index (U.S. intelligence officials put the number of insurgent sympathizers as high as 200,000). Yet Zarqawi has enlisted an increasing number of Iraqis to his cause, as evidenced by the November 9, 2005, suicide attacks against a pair of hotels in Amman, Jordan, at the hands of Iraqis loyal to Zarqawi. “He’s clearly turned a corner in terms of his operations in Iraq,” says Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi native and visiting scholar with the Hudson Institute. “He’s become a media star and has been tagged the head of the ‘dead-enders.’ All of a sudden more money comes to Zarqawi independent of the ex-Baathists. With his allure, strength, and ability to avoid capture, this starts drawing Iraqi recruits. He becomes a hub of money and activity and buys out the logistical networks that used to operate under the aegis of the ex-Baathists.”  

Yet some elements of the insurgency, including Sunni nationalists, have disassociated themselves from Zarqawi’s violent tactics and have expressed a growing willingness to participate in Iraq’s political process. Buoyed by high Sunni turnout at the December 15 parliamentary elections, these insurgents hope to improve Sunnis’ representation in parliament—just seventeen out of 275 seats in the interim government—to revise the constitution and achieve their political goals. The more mainstream elements of the insurgency supported Sunni participation during the recent elections and even provided security at polling stations in heavily Sunni places like Ramadi. As such, the elections were relatively free of violence and voter intimidation.

White sees an emerging split among insurgents on what constitutes legitimate resistance. The recent attacks in Ramadi, he says, “sent a message that Sunnis who collaborate with the government can and will be targeted.” Others suggest the recent series of attacks may have been in response to the outcome of the elections, which a number of Sunnis and secular Shiites say was marred by voting irregularities and electoral fraud. “People like the Islamic Party [a Sunni party that supported the elections] have egg on their face,” Kazimi says. “It’s as if the insurgents are cleansing themselves of the ceasefire they were talked into for the elections.” In a recent hour-long speech posted on the web, Kazimi says, Zarqawi blames the Islamic Party and other Sunni groups for participating in the U.S.-led political process, reminding the resistance of Iraq’s colonial history and even quoting T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Zarqawi blames the Islamic Party and other Sunni groups for participating in the U.S.-led political process, reminding the resistance of Iraq’s colonial history and even quoting T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

It’s unclear how much sway Sunni members of the insurgency hold over Zarqawi’s supporters, experts say. The fact that mainline Sunni leaders were able to persuade Zarqawi to suspend attacks on election day may suggest their influence may be greater than previously realized, experts say. “Generally speaking, the nationalists and former regime elements are capable of controlling the behavior of Zarqawi’s group because they are alien elements in Iraq, so [the Sunnis] have leverage over them,” White says. “Whether they can decisively defeat [the foreign jihadis] is another story.”

Other experts say the rift between the two main strands of the insurgency is exaggerated. True, the two groups hold different, sometimes opposing, objectives in Iraq. The Sunni nationalists and ex-Baathists primarily want to eject U.S. forces from Iraq, as well as restore Sunni power in Baghdad. On the flipside, the foreign insurgents, in addition to ejecting U.S. troops, have broader aims to sow sectarian violence and establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, a theocracy based on Islamic law that spanned the Muslim world for twelve centuries. Yet for now, Zarqawi remains useful to the Iraqi insurgents, experts say. “He delivers human torpedos and in return gets money and logistical help from the Baathists,” Kazimi says.

Can insurgents be talked into surrendering?

As the war in Iraq approaches its three-year mark in March 2006, the insurgency continues to rage on incessantly. Last September was the most violent month in post-war Iraq, resulting in 481 casualties and more than 1,000 wounded from multiple-fatality bombings. U.S. officials have had scant success thwarting al-Qaeda in Iraq’s suicide attacks. “No one can constrain suicide attackers,” admits the Pentagon official. “The Israelis have been trying to do it since 1983. Unfortunately, this is the future of war and what we’ll be fighting for the next hundred years.” The only two ways to defeat an insurgency, he adds, are “to kill them all or to negotiate.” Although U.S. officials have begun the latter, they continue to train and equip Iraqi security forces to be able to militarily fight the insurgency without U.S. backup. Much also depends on Iraq’s political process. “If I knew what the Sunni politicians were going to do,” says the Pentagon official, “then I could answer the question of when this insurgency will end.”

White is less optimistic. “This notion that Sunni participation in the elections will mark the beginning of the end of the resistance is the wrong notion,” he says. Insurgencies, after all, are generally fought over years, not months, say most counterinsurgency strategists. “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 a widely quoted April 2005 New York Times op-ed.

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