April 22, 2005

Iraq: Thoughts on the Insurgency – April 2005

In the wake of increased insurgent attacks in Iraq over the past week, one could get the impression that the insurgency is on the rise and we are in the middle of an offensive. In reality, the insurgency is probably no stronger than it was just prior to the January 30 elections.

Perhaps we should define the insurgents. As I see it, there are two main groups. These two groups have divergent strategic goals, but they are tactically allied against the coalition and the new Iraqi government. The forner regime members, mostly Ba'thists, want to restore themselves to power. The Al-Qa’idah in Iraq faction led by Abu Mus’ib Az-Zarqawi, composed of mostly foreigners, wants to install a fundamentalist Islamic state. Their common goals of forcing the coalition to leave and the destruction of the new government transcend their differences.

Many, but not all, of the recent attacks have been in the Baghdad area. The insurgents are finding it more difficult to operate at will throughout the country. The Kurdish area in the north continues to be relatively calm. The only insurgent operations in this area have been in the formerly regime-controlled cities of Mosul (Al-Mawsil) and Kirkuk, and the city of Irbil. Attacks in Mosul and Kirkuk are possible because of the presence of large Sunni Arab populations sympathetic to the regime of Saddam Husayn.

In the predominantly Shi’a south, there has been a marked drop in insurgent attacks. The Shi’a believe that their best interests are in supporting the nascent government (which they dominate). There are ongoing attempts by the insurgents, both the former regime elements as well as the Az-Zarqawi faction, to create a rift, to spark a civil war between the Sunni Arabs and the Shi’a. Thus far, repeated attacks on Shi’a mosques and funerals have not provoked the intended Shi’a response.

Why have the Shi’a not responded to the provocation? The Shi’a are a much more coherent and cohesive group than the Sunnis. As an oppressed majority, they have coalesced throught the years into a cohesive community led by their clergy. The senior Shi’s clerics, most notably the Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Al-Sistani, exercise great moral authority. They have told the Shi’a not to respond to the Sunni provocations. Thus far, they have not.

Since the selection of the president, Kurd Jalal Talabani, we have been waiting for the prime minister designate, Ibrahim al-Ja’afari, to form a new government. The insurgents want to let the population, primarily the Sunnis, that they will continue to target anyone in, cooperating with, or contemplating becoming part of the government.

The nature of the attacks has changed as well. The insurgents continue to use the improvised explosive device and car bombs. All other tactics have for the most part been rendered ineffective by adaptive American tactics. When the insurgents have tried massed force on force attacks against American forces, such as at Abu Ghurayb earlier this month, it failed and resulted in significant insurgent casualties.

In the end, however, it is not American or coalition forces that will defeat the insurgency. On MSNBC last night, Chris Matthews in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman asked if we would leave Iraqi forces with “an insurgency we couldn’t handle.” I think there has been a realization all along that it will have to be the Iraqi forces that will defeat the insurgency. That will happen only when the Iraqi people, particularly the Sunnis in the so-called “Sunni triangle,” cease being “fence-sitters” and commit to the new government and begin cooperating. Once that happens and the increased intelligence flow that began after the elections increases, the insurgency will face defeat.

When the Iraqi forces gain the upper hand, they will be dealing with both factions of the insurgency. Although some fo the Iraqis in the insurgency may choose to become part of the new system, most of them and virtually any of the Al-Qa’idah faction that stay will have to be hunted down and killed.