April 18, 2007

Attacks a direct challenge to the “surge”

When the number of American and Iraqi troops on the ground in Baghdad increased as the “surge” began in January, there was a corresponding decrease in the level of sectarian violence. In addition to the increased troop presence, the decreased violence was also attributed to the decision of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s orders to his jaysh al-mahdi (Mahdi Army) to lay low.

This turned out to be a fairly sound strategy. Although there were some raids by Iraqi and American military forces into the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, there were relatively few arrests or detentions of the groups leadership. In the absence of resistance, the American and Iraqis were free to concentrate their efforts on the Sunni insurgents and al-Qa’idah in Iraq forces.

This concentration on the Sunnis must be having an effect. There is a real conflict ongoing inside the various factions that comprise the Sunnis that have taken up arms against the Iraqi government or American forces. The tribal shaykhs in the Sunni triangle, including the city of al-Ramadi, have turned on the al-Qa’idah in Iraq fighters. While they are not exactly allied with the Iraqi or American forces, they are no longer tacitly supporting the foreigners in their midst.

Likewise, there is disunity inside the umbrella insurgent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq. There are reports of conflicts between the eight member groups, possibly ignited by accusations that some of the groups have been involved in political talks with the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Between the increased attacks by American and Iraqi forces, and the internal disputes among the various insurgent groups, the Sunnis are suffering under the surge. They need to do two things if they are going to survive: re-ignite the civil war (or as some call it, sectarian violence) between themselves and the Shi’a, and they need to arrange a truce among themselves. They know this and are attempting both.

The leader of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, has called for unity among the insurgent groups and al-Qa’idah in Iraq, at one point threatening to punish any of his group’s fighters involved in internal disputes. (See my earlier articles:
Declaration of "Islamic Iraq" - precursor to civil war? and Declaration of "Islamic Iraq" - ADDENDUM.)

In a more ominous development, the Sunnis have launched a terrorism offensive on the Shi’a, hoping to restart the civil war. If they can get the Shi’a to re-engage, the American and Iraqi forces will have to deal with them also. There are coincidental benefits as well. As I have said before, victory for the insurgents will not come on the battlefields of Iraq – it will come from public opinion in the United States. Increased sectarian violence, much of it appearing to be horrific and senseless – attacks on markets, schools, mosques, etc. – plays an important part of that tactic.

Thus far the Shi’a have not taken the bait. Hopefully they won’t.