Iraq’s Divided Insurgents

Posted: February 13, 2006 in International, Politics

by Mahan Abedin for the Mideast Monitor

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia.

By most statistical measures, the Arab Sunni insurgency in Iraq is stronger than ever, drawing upon an estimated 30,000-40,000 combatants and several times this number of informants and other active supporters. The death toll on coalition troops, Iraqi security forces, and civilians shows no signs of declining, while the economic costs of relentless insurgent violence and infrastructural sabotage have become staggering. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Iraq’s GDP declined in 2005 (a stunning achievement in the light of the enormous amount of money being injected into the country).[1]

The insurgency has one glaring weakness, however – it is divided. A small network of mostly foreign Salafi jihadists, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is striving to turn Iraq into a springboard for global Islamist struggle, while an array of indigenous Arab Sunni groups with an Islamist-nationalist orientation are fighting to achieve conceivably realizable domestic political goals. Although driven by fundamentally different long-term agendas, both have shared the short-term objective of derailing the American-sponsored political transition in Iraq. This may be changing, however.

The Islamist-nationalist camp’s tacit endorsement of Sunni participation in parliamentary elections in December indicates that it may be willing to end its rejection of the new Iraqi state (if not its fight against American forces) in exchange for political concessions. The recent spate of suicide bombings, coming amid Shiite-Sunni negotiations over the formation of a new government, suggests that the Salafi-jihadists will stop at nothing to prevent this accommodation.

The Salafi Jihadists

Since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, thousands of Islamist militants from throughout the Arab world have infiltrated Iraq for the express purpose of fighting the United States. Although representing a small segment of the insurgency, the Salafi-jihadists are responsible for most of the mass killings of Iraqi civilians that have become emblematic of the conflict.

Most jihadist factions in Iraq are affiliates (or subordinate allies) of Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia network, though their precise interrelationships are not entirely clear. All see the Iraq conflict as an extension of their global war against America and therefore have no stake in Iraq’s political future other than making it as chaotic as possible.

The Zarqawi network has established a particularly strong presence in western Anbar and Nineveh provinces along the so-called Euphrates river valley and near the border with Syria, from where the great majority of its fighters infiltrate into Iraq. US and Iraqi forces carried out large-scale operations throughout last year to dislodge jihadist insurgents from towns and villages in the area. However, the insurgents tend to quickly reestablish themselves following these sweeps because the American military is reluctant to heavily garrison this region (partly for fear of aggravating an already hostile local population) and Iraqi security forces are not yet up to the task.

Although foreign fighters are the life-blood of the Zarqawi network,[2] it has established substantial indigenous roots. Some of Zarqawi’s top lieutenants and advisers are said to be Iraqi and it is clear from the sophistication of its attacks that the network has legions of local informants, logistical agents, and other active supporters. Its deadly operational performance would not be possible without this indigenous foundation. Significantly, however, very few suicide bombings have been carried out by native Iraqis,[3] a strong indication that the ideological appeal of Salafi-jihadism in Iraq is still very limited. Local support for the Zarqawi network is fueled primarily by Arab Sunni revulsion toward the US-led occupation.

For this reason, the Zarqawi network is not, strictly speaking, trying to drive American forces out of Iraq – this would remove its raison d’etre in the eyes of most Iraqi Sunnis. Believing that a strong and coercive American military presence in the Middle East is the most effective catalyst for the widening and deepening of Islamic militancy, Zarqawi’s goal is to sink America deeper into the Iraq quagmire.

Many people make the mistake of seeing their enemy as more powerful than they actually are, and thus live in fear when they should, in fact, feel empowered by their own strength. I am reminded of an incident during the American Civil War’s Battle of the Wilderness, where a general came running up to the Union General Ulysses S. Grant in a panic about the activities of the enemy. General Grant listened, a while, and then stood up and said, “I am tired of hearing about what the enemy is doing. You people seem to feel that he is going to do somersaults and land in our rear at any time. It is about time you stopped worrying about what he is going to do to us, and he start worrying about we are going to do to him.

WE are the strength, here, and we should always remember this. Results are rarely instantaneous, but we are very good at what we do, are not likely to make serious mistakes, and will win, if we keep our focus.

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