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Vol. 1   No. 1

February 2006

Iraq's Divided Insurgents
by Mahan Abedin
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.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

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.

The Islamist-Nationalist Camp

Well over 90% of insurgents in the field are native Iraqis,[4] organized in an array of "resistance" networks concentrated in the so-called Sunni triangle of western, central and north-western Iraq. The proliferation of groups claiming responsibility for insurgent attacks (much of it disinformation) makes a precise delineation of insurgent structure virtually impossible, but some generalities can be made.

Contrary to many Western and pro-government Iraqi media reports, indigenous insurgent groups are not directed by a deck of cards. While a handful of former senior officials of Iraq's defunct Baathist regime have played a major role in financing the rebellion from hideouts in Syria, there is little evidence that they directly command insurgent forces in the field. It is largely mid-ranking intelligence and military officers, generally in their late 30s and 40s, who are taking charge of the insurgency. Most were members of the Baath party, but this membership was required of anyone aspiring to a career in the security establishment. Few can be characterized as ideological Baathists.

Even the frequently used term "former regime elements" is misleading ("former security elites" is more apt), as their connection to the regime was dependent on the authority of former Baath party organizers. After the fall of the regime, these elements were absorbed by localized networks marked by strong familial or tribal ties. The Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), for example, operates mainly in the lawless regions immediately to the south of Baghdad. These networks flow into each other at the regional level and cooperate both tactically and strategically. Insurgents have set up elaborate fund-raising systems in Iraq, relying on mosques (particularly those connected to Sufi orders) as well as criminal enterprises. While much has been made of financing by former regime officials in Syria, the insurgency would probably be no less intractable without it. Money is a motivating factor for some insurgents (with some getting paid for every IED strike against coalition forces), but most frontline combatants seem to have joined the rebellion for nationalistic reasons or because of personal loss brought about by the occupation.

Although there is no organized leadership structure uniting local insurgent groups, most seem to recognize the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS, Hay'at Ulama al-Muslimin), an organization set up by Sunni clerics shortly after the fall of Baghdad, as their collective representative. The AMS strenuously denies any involvement in front-line insurgency, but this claim is undermined by the fact that freed Western hostages are often released into its care.

Its ability to play this role is partly rooted in the so-called "faith campaign" (hamla imaniya) launched by Saddam after Iraq's crushing defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War to primarily combat Shiite Islamism. The "Hamla Imaniyah" was an exclusively Arab Sunni affair, with a particular focus on empowering Sunni Sufi orders. Enormous sums of money were spent building new mosques and expanding religious education. The AMS is headquartered in one of the campaign's most grandiose projects - the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad (notable for its minarets shaped like SCUD missiles). Once the regime fell, this network of religious institutions became something of a surrogate institutional bond for the community and a protected space for insurgent recruiting and fundraising. Although former security elites (like most educated Arab Sunnis) tend to have secular nationalist views, insurgent groups have readily adopted Islamist names (e.g. the Army of Muhammad) and idioms that appeal to the masses (and to their clerical patrons).

Not surprisingly, the AMS platform reflects an amalgam of nationalist and Islamist principles. In sharp contrast to Salafi-jihadist dogma, the central concept infusing AMS pronouncements is not jihad, but the nationalist concept of resistance (muqawama), and there is little denigration of Shiite Islam. In fact, the AMS has borrowed Shiite concepts in getting its message across - accusing the government of abandoning the Shiite tradition of martyrdom (istishhadiyya) by capitulating to foreign occupiers, for example.[5] Interestingly, the AMS is aspiring to play a political role similar to that of the Shiite marja'iyya (religious authority), led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - brokering consensus among competing Sunni groups and setting down guidelines for advancing the community's collective interests.

While the departure of American troops from Iraq is the paramount goal of Islamist-nationalist insurgents, they also see themselves as defenders of Sunni communal interests. Initially, at least, there was no inherent contradiction - attacks against coalition forces and Iraqis who collaborate with the transitional Iraqi government were seen by Sunnis as serving both causes. Initially confined to crude roadside bombs and occasional shootings at US military convoys in the central regions of Iraq, insurgent operations today encompass a range of methods, such as car bombings, IEDs, assassinations, and abductions. The heartland of the Islamist-nationalist insurgents is the interior of Anbar, particularly in and around the towns of Fallujah, Ramadi, Habbaniyah, Hadithah and Baghdadi (not to be confused with Baghdad).

The insurgents have been enormously successful in disrupting government efforts to build effective Arab Sunni police forces (by the end of 2004, most of these units had disintegrated in the face of insurgent attacks) and in discouraging Sunni political participation (Arab Sunni turnout for the January 2005 transitional parliamentary elections was so low that only 17 Arab Sunnis were elected to the 275-member transitional assembly). Ironically, however, both of these "successes" backfired politically.

As a result of the disintegration of local police units, Kurdish peshmurga were brought in to control Mosul, while predominantly Shiite forces were deployed in Ramadi, Samarra, Fallujah, and Tal Afar. The US military also gave greater latitude to quasi-governmental counter-terrorism units controlled by the Badr Organization of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), most notably the Wolf brigade, which began to more aggressively combat insurgents, particularly in mixed Shiite-Sunni areas. Ironically, many Arab Sunni insurgent commanders being hunted by SCIRI-controlled paramilitary squads were, in their previous capacities under the Baathist regime, involved in rooting out SCIRI insurgents in the 1990s.

The Arab Sunni boycott of the January 2005 elections produced a lopsided electoral triumph by the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which accelerated the expansion of SCIRI dominance over the nascent security forces. The new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafaari appointed Bayan Jabr, a former senior commander of the Badr Corps, as interior minister. Jabr, in turn, appointed other Badr officials to key posts and lifted the Allawi administration's limits on recruitment of militia fighters into the police. The ASM alleges that these units frequently abduct and torture suspected Sunni militants and were responsible for the assassinations of several Sunni clerics last year.

Growing Shiite domination of the state's domestic security organs has unquestionably heightened sectarian tensions, but it has also convinced many Arab Sunnis that the costs of failing to advance their interests through the political process are too high. By mid-2005, a consensus was emerging that Sunnis should seek to gain representation within the government (if only to head off increasingly aggressive state handling of the insurgency).

In April, the AMS reversed its long-standing calls for Sunnis to refrain from joining Iraq's embryonic military and police forces, saying that this was now necessary to prevent the country from falling into "the hands of those who have caused chaos, destruction and violated the sanctities."[6] When Iraq's draft constitution came up for a vote in October, the AMS called upon Iraqis to reject it, either "by boycotting the referendum or by voting no."[7] It adopted a similarly ambivalent stance toward the December 15 parliamentary elections.[8] Significantly, local insurgents made little effort to disrupt the elections.

The largest bloc of newly-elected Arab Sunni representatives belong to the Iraqi Accord Front, a coalition led by the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). The IIP, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood established in 1960, has pledged to push for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces and work to overturn federal provisions of the constitution if it joins the next government.

The growing trend toward Arab Sunni political participation as an adjunct (if not yet as an alternative) to armed struggle has been aggressively resisted by the Zarqawi network, with armed clashes between local forces and Salafi-jihadist insurgents growing steadily more frequent in the so-called Sunni triangle over the past year.[9] Al-Hayat recently reported that "Tribal Popular Committees" have been formed in Ramadi to hunt down Zarqawi operatives "for the purpose of expelling them from the Iraqi border to Syria."[10]

These tensions probably contributed to the willingness of Islamist-nationalists insurgents to begin negotiating with Washington last year. US officials reportedly held indirect talks with representatives of the IAI, Bloc of Holy Warriors and the Revolution of 1920 Brigades on the sidelines of November 19-21 Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference in Cairo. The insurgents reportedly offered to capture Zarqawi and turn him over to a "legitimate" Iraqi government in exchange for a US troop withdrawal.[11] According to one report, Islamist-nationalist insurgent leaders recently offered a one-year truce with US forces, conditional on the United States removing half its forces from Iraq during this period and increased Arab Sunni representation in the new government, but American negotiators have refused to commit to such a timetable.[12]

Another area of converging American and Arab Sunni interests is SCIRI's domination of the Iraqi security apparatus. After conspicuously avoiding criticism on this issue for two years,[13] Washington suddenly broke its silence in mid-November by raiding a secret Interior Ministry detention center and freeing 169 mostly Arab Sunni prisoners, scores of whom were allegedly tortured. Shortly afterwards, US officials began publicly calling for an end to "militia or sectarian control or direction of Iraqi Security Forces, facilities, or ministries."[14]

This may be an uphill struggle. Having endured centuries of Sunni domination, most Shiites see their control over the security forces as a critical safeguard against a return to the past. Moreover, SCIRI's aggressive counterinsurgency tactics enjoy overwhelming public support within the community, in large part due to the Zarqawi network's indiscriminate massacres of Shiite worshippers. The climate of fear among Shiites is such that the mere rumor of a suicide bomber caused a stampede during a Shiite religious procession in late August, resulting in over a thousand deaths.

As Sunni and Shiite leaders negotiated over the formation of Iraq's next government last month, the Zarqawi network launched a string of brutal suicide attacks that left many scores of mostly Shiite civilians dead. Knowing that its days in Iraq will be numbered once Arab Sunnis are drawn into the political process, the Salafi-jihadists are likely to intensify their efforts to obstruct political accommodation between Sunnis and Shiites. They may win this round by blocking the formation of an inclusive coalition government. Following the recent upsurge of violence, SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim declared that he would not allow any coalition government to "change the essence of the constitution,"[15] provoking a flurry of equally defiant response by Sunni leaders.[16]

In the long run, however, the Zarqawi network's terror campaign is unlikely to block accommodation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, after eight decades of statehood Iraqis share a strong sense of national identity. It is noteworthy that during the above-mentioned stampede, scores of Sunnis from a nearby neighborhood dove into a river to save Shiites who had fallen off the bridge. One of them, a teenager, drowned after pulling seven people to shore and has since become a national icon.[17] A few weeks earlier, Sunni tribesmen in Ramadi gunned down Zarqawi operatives who were attempting to expel Shiites from the city.[18] High rates of Sunni-Shiite intermarriage in Iraq (and, consequentially, cross-cutting tribal ties) also act to deflate sectarian extremism on both sides of the divide.

The insurgency is unlikely to diminish anytime soon, however, and there are signs that recurrent violence is beginning to take its toll on Iraqi unity. According to the New York Times, some 20 mixed cities and towns in central Iraq are slowly segregating as Sunnis and Shiites leave areas in which they are a minority.[19] While prospects for political accommodation remain strong, this window of opportunity will gradually close if endemic violence persists in the years ahead.


  [1] Estimate by Economist Intelligence Unit, not official figures. "Economy in Iraq Goes in All Directions," The Los Angeles Times, 2 January 2006.
  [2] Murad Al-Shishani, "The Salafi-Jihadist Movement in Iraq: Recruitment Methods and Arab Volunteers," Terrorism Monitor, 2 December 2005.
  [3] US military officials claimed last year that there had been no documented cases of Iraqi suicide bombers ["US Officers In Iraq Put Priority on Extremists; Hussein Loyalists Not Seen as Greatest Threat," The Washington Post, 9 May 2005], but it's important to keep in mind that very few "successful" suicide bombers are conclusively identified. According to lists of "martyrs" published on jihadist web sites, less than 9% of the suicide bombers have been Iraqi. [See Reuven Paz, "Arab Volunteers Killed in Iraq: An Analysis," Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM), March 2005. Available online in pdf format]
  [4] Over 95% of insurgents killed or captured by coalition forces have been native Iraqis. See "Suicide Attacks Rising Rapidly," The Los Angeles Times, 2 June 2005.
  [5] For a more detailed discussion of AMS ideology, see Roel Meijer, The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, Middle East Report, No. 237, Winter 2005.
  [6] "Iraqis Urged to Join Security Forces," Associated Press, 1 April 2005.
  [7] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), 13 October 2005.
  [8] "We will not participate in the elections or in any political process under occupation in order not to give legitimacy to the occupation," Al-Dari told Al-Jazeera on December 11, "but we respect the Iraqi people's options, including participation in or boycott of the elections." Translation by BBC Monitoring International Reports, 13 December 2005.
  [9] "Local Insurgents Tell of Clashes With Al Qaeda's Forces in Iraq," The New York Times, 12 January 2006.
  [10] Al-Hayat, 26 January 2006.
  [11] Al-Hayat (London), 26 November 2005.
  [12] Al-Sabah (Iraq), 2 February 2006.   [13] When asked to comment in June on the Jaafari administration's growing use of militias against insurgents, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the matter "is an Iraqi issue that they will decide and that they will deal with." US Department of State Daily Press Briefing, 8 June 2005.
  [14] Briefing with Major General Rick Lynch, Spokesman, Multinational Force Iraq & James Bullock, US embassy to Iraq, Baghdad, 17 November 2005.
  [15] "Powerful politician says Iraq's Shiites won't accept changes to constitution," The Associated Press, 11 January 2006.
  [16] "If they do not accept key amendments to the country's new constitution, including the regions issue, then let them work alone and divide the country, as for us we do not accept this," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the National Dialogue Front, a largely secular nationalist coalition with neo-Baathists at its core. "Sunni politician says refusal to change constitution would lead to impasse," Associated Press, 12 January 2006.
  [17] See "His sacrifice helped bridge Iraq's sectarian differences, for awhile," The Los Angeles Times, 4 December 2005.
  [18] Days later, the Zarqawi network opened fire on local Sunni leaders who had gathered to discuss registering voters for the October referendum, wounding three people (including a member of the AMS). In retaliation, Sunni tribesmen killed four Zarqawi fighters. "Iraqi Sunnis Battle To Defend Shiites," The Washington Post, 14 August 2005; "Sunni Leaders Attacked In Iraq," The Washington Post, 19 August 2005; "3 Sunni Activists Killed In Iraq," The Washington Post, 20 August 2005.
  [19] "Sectarian Hatred Pulls Apart Iraq's Mixed Towns,"  The New York Times, 20 November 2005.

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