Why the insurgency won't go away
The stealthy manner in which power was formally handed over to the Iraqis two days ahead of schedule on June 28, 2004, was designed to forestall the widespread violence that coalition forces expected for the original date. It was also an acknowledgment by coalition officials that the violent insurgencies they insisted would not derail Iraq’s reconstruction now threaten the emergence of a sovereign nation.
Iraq is overridden with partisan warfare by former regime loyalists, organized rebellions by disgruntled Iraqis, terrorism by foreign and domestic Islamist extremists, and a wave of crime by organized gangs.1 Rather than an all-out war of national liberation against coalition forces and Iraqi authorities, groups with nothing in common—except the demand that the coalition leave—are fighting against U.S. forces in an insurgency that spikes and ebbs. We may also see different ethnic or sectarian groups pitted against one another in a massive fight over who gets what, and when and how. Signs of such multi-layered conflict do not augur well for Iraq’s future stability.
Strategic attacks have been escalating since July 2003, when the insurgents began bombing military convoys and coalition vehicles. Insurgents have targeted senior Iraqi political figures associated with the coalition, Iraqi security forces, and even Iraqi technocrats and professionals, interpreters and translators, and ordinary workers who “collaborate” with the coalition.2 They have also targeted foreigners working with the United States in Iraq. The number of such attacks increased dramatically in April and May 2004, when scores of foreigners were taken hostage, and continued unabated through the summer. Insurgents have launched attacks against nations that are part of the U.S.-led coalition, killing officials and diplomats from Spain, Japan, and Italy in the hope of driving a wedge between these nations and the United States and ultimately forcing them out of Iraq (so far Spain and the Philippines have withdrawn their forces). These attacks have shaken the coalition’s resilience and have led to public protests worldwide. Insurgent groups have damaged or destroyed electrical power stations, liquid natural-gas plants, and oil installations. Considerable evidence suggests that the sabotage of critical infrastructure by pro-Saddam insurgents was well thought out before the onset of the war.
In the spring and summer of 2004, new insurgents in Sunni regions showed a dramatic improvement in small-unit fighting skills. They can now stand and fight rather than merely “shoot and scoot” or “pray and spray” as in the past, and they can conduct coordinated small-unit ambushes against U.S. forces (as they did in Ramadi in early April) and press attacks on supply convoys. In August 2004 Shi’i insurgents in Najaf and Karbala opened another front for the U.S. military.
Even though the standoff between Muqtada and the U.S. forces in Najaf ended without a massive urban assault, the conflict itself seems not to have ended. A total of 1,100 U.S. personnel were wounded in insurgent attacks in August. The abduction and execution of hostages continued apace; a particularly gruesome event was the killing of 12 Nepalese men in late August. September started with a grim milestone when the thousandth American soldier was killed, one of a dozen soldiers and Marines killed in firefights with both Sunni and Shi’i insurgents.
Who is behind this complex insurgency, and what do these groups actually want? The insurgency is not a united movement directed by a leadership with a single ideological vision. Indeed, the insurgents may have calculated that their success does not now require an elaborate political and socioeconomic vision of a “free” Iraq; articulating the desire to be free of foreign occupation has sufficed to win popular support. Because they wish to avoid fratricidal conflict, these groups are cooperating with one another and coordinating attacks at the operational and tactical levels despite profound political differences. As one insurgent leader put it, “We first want to expel the infidel invaders before anything else.” Once the coalition forces leave it would not be surprising to see conflict among the groups.
Combating this insurgency will not be easy. The insurgent groups’ methods of organization and political indoctrination remain opaque to American forces. The American government has little understanding of social organization and religious life in Iraq, especially the Sunni mosques that have become centers of opposition to the coalition. But we can begin with a look at the evolution of the different insurgent groups. It is most useful to categorize the violence as stemming from two insurgencies—Sunni (by far the largest) and Shi’i—and, from there, the groups that, although possessing different goals, may join them tactically in the fighting.
The Sunni Insurgency
The insurgency began in May 2003 with an outbreak of violence among the Sunni Arab population in an area bounded by the cities of Baghdad, Ramadi, and Fallujah that has come to be known as the “Sunni Triangle.” The grievances of that minority group—privileged under Saddam Hussein’s regime—stem from the threat to their identity in the new post-Sunni Iraq, the mistaken assumption that they would accept their loss of status and privileges peaceably, and certain “muscular” aspects of the American response to their discontent.
With the collapse of an already ineffective police force and the rise of vicious criminal gangs (a result of the war and of Saddam’s release of over 200,000 criminals in 2000), the Sunni Arab commercial and middle classes hoped the United States would protect them. But the United States simply lacks the manpower to stop the decline of law and order in Iraq and restore basic services. Middle-class allies would have been an invaluable asset to the coalition, and their support might have been forthcoming if their grievances had been addressed from the outset. As one Sunni observer put it, “If the Americans came and developed our general services, brought work for our people, and transferred their technology to us, then we would not have been so disappointed. But it is not acceptable to us as human beings that after one year America is still not able to bring us electricity.3 The coalition’s indifference to the concerns of the group that had held the reins of power for over 70 years was seen by leading Sunnis as a calculated step to marginalize that community in the new Iraq.4
The Sunni insurgency also includes a prominent Islamic nationalist element made up of former military and security personnel who have received encouragement from the preaching of the mainstream Sunni clergy. Traditionally, members of the Sunni clergy have not been as politically active as their Shi’i counterparts in mobilizing the populace against perceived injustices. This has begun to change both in Iraq and in the rest of the Arab world. We have also witnessed the emergence of younger, politically active clergymen (imams) with clear-cut Salafist (purist) tendencies. (The Salafis have contributed to the increasing violence of the insurgency by targeting leaders of other communities, promoters of “moral laxity,” and non-Muslims. They have derided the Shi’is and their rituals and have even attacked and defaced posters of Shi’i religious figures. In the fall of 2003 Islamists were particularly active in Mosul, where they attacked a nunnery, killed a well-known writer, bombed a popular cinema, and torched four liquor stores.)
The Friday sermons have been a traditional way of channeling political and social discontent in Muslim societies. In Iraq the Friday sermons by Sunni clerics resonate with a population that has no notable or charismatic politician or lay leadership to turn to in this time of stress and humiliation.
While the Sunni insurgency is not endorsed by all Sunni Arabs, its support comes from all classes, both urban and rural, and includes students, intellectuals, former soldiers, tribal youth and farmers, and Islamists. Even some who do not actively support the insurgency are prepared to express their admiration for the insurgents and their activities. For example, a member of the Fallujah administrative council openly stated that the insurgents are mujahideen, or holy warriors. “We don’t know them,” he said, but added, “Al Anbar [the province where Fallujah is located] has a bigger nationalist consciousness than the rest of Iraq. We are also more religious. We consider this resistance a religious duty and a nationalist one as well.” 5
The sanctions regime that existed between 1991 and 2003 promoted Iraqi religious revival. The destruction of the Iraqi middle class, the collapse of the secular educational system, and the growth of illiteracy, despair, and anomie have resulted in large numbers of Iraqis seeking succor in religion.
Very conservative Sunni Arabs living within the Sunni triangle were receptive to the idea of religious political activism. Despite its original allegiance to militant secularism, Saddam’s regime itself began to promote the re-Islamization of Iraqi society over the past ten years to buttress its legitimacy. This was symbolized by a number of religious policies undertaken with the official sanction of the regime in its last four years: in 1999 the regime launched an al hamla al-imaniyah or Enhancement of Islamic Faith campaign that restricted drinking and gambling establishments, narrowed secular practices, and promoted religious education and religious programming in the media. The regime even allowed Sunni clerics to politicize their sermons so long as they focused their ire on the forces that kept Iraq under debilitating sanctions. While the regime focused mainly on reviving religion among the minority Sunni Arab population, many Sunni Iraqi activists saw the regime’s strategy as a move from “infidelity to hypocrisy,” as was described by a senior Sunni Islamist, Dr. ’Usamah al-Tikriti.
The insurgency has benefited tremendously from this fusion of nationalist and Islamist sentiments among the Sunnis. In this context, the statement of an insurgent leader that the “most prominent resistance is the Islamic resistance” should not be doubted. The pro-Saddam group lost considerable power and legitimacy with the apprehension of the former Iraqi leader in mid-December 2003. Moreover, many of the Islamic nationalist insurgents have blamed the Ba’ath party and the former regime for the disasters that have befallen the country. These “Islamo-nationalist” insurgents showed greater motivation and dedication than either the former regime loyalists or the freelance insurgents of the early months of the insurgency.
As the Islamo-nationalists took on a larger role, during the fall and winter of 2003–2004, the insurgency became harder to fight for four reasons.
First, the insurgents grew more proficient. American forces had killed most of the incompetent ones; the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the surviving insurgents became more lethal as a result of experience.
Second, their proficiency also increased as a result of the role of former professional military personnel who, for nationalistic and religious reasons, increasingly opted for the path of violence. By fall these disgruntled military personnel—with no great sympathy for the defunct regime but outraged over the loss of status, privilege, and jobs that came with the disbanding of the armed forces in May 2003—began to play a larger role in the ranks of the insurgency. Senior or mid-ranking officers were acting as mentors for cells of untrained but enthusiastic insurgents. After a terrible month of casualties for the United States in November 2003, U.S. forces went after former regime insurgents with greater vigor.
Third, young men from various Sunni Arab tribes had begun to swell the ranks of the insurgency. In the Fallujah area, the 50,000-strong Albueissa tribe has played an especially prominent role; its members have claimed that it was their fighters who shot down the U.S. Army Chinook that resulted in the deaths of 17 U.S. troops in early November 2003. There are several distinct motivations for these insurgents. Some are intangible, such as the traditional tribal reluctance to submit to any kind of authority—Saddam often had trouble with Sunni Arab tribes—and the conservative Islamist and nationalist reluctance to submit to foreign infidels. Others are material grievances the coalition could have addressed. As I mentioned, these include the lack of security and law and order and economic opportunities, but they also include alleged American missteps and “boorish” behavior: trampling on tribal honor and customs when searching private homes and individuals and withholding information and access to detainees for months. U.S. Standard Operating Procedures when responding to ambushes and attacks have resulted in the slaying of innocent bystanders; as one member of the Albueissa tribe who lost his two-year granddaughter in September 2003 to seemingly trigger-happy U.S. soldiers, put it, “It is their routine. After the Americans are attacked, they shoot everywhere. This is inhuman—a stupid act by a country always talking about human rights.”
These are not isolated incidents. Conflict between Iraqis and Americans erupted in the equally conservative town of Hit in May as a result of what the population saw as overly aggressive American responses to hit-and-run attacks by insurgents and a deliberate disdain for traditions: the searching of homes without the presence of the male head of the household and body searches of females by male American soldiers. In an extensive discussion with several retired Sunni Arab officers I was forcefully informed that one of the biggest factors promoting hatred of the United States was its cultural ignorance and disdain for the Iraqis; the evidence lay in the daily treatment of Iraqis and of detainees.
Fourth, foreign terrorists and Sunni extremists began to play a larger role in the insurgency. There is growing evidence of an influx of foreign Islamists and anti-American groups, such as al Qaeda and the Tawhid organization of the enigmatic Jordanian-Palestinian terrorist Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi.
Despite the insistence of the Bush administration and some observers of the Iraq scene that the former Ba’athist regime collaborated with al Qaeda, it is increasingly clear that the American presence has attracted such groups into Iraq following the regime’s demise. Despite their relatively small numbers they constitute a force multiplier and are willing to engage in operations that most Iraqi insurgents would prefer to avoid. The foreign Islamists infiltrating into Iraq would be expected to make common cause with local Sunni Arab Salafis who have emerged in cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.
The mutual suspicion between Sunni Islamists on the one hand and former regime loyalists, secular-minded nationalists, and tribal elements who are actively opposing the coalition on the other, does not mean that the latter groups would be averse to providing logistical support for the former. The attempts by “freelance” jihadists itching to fight the United States and by al Qaeda elements to infiltrate Iraq can only be successful if such foreign volunteers are provided with resources, protection, concealment, and the necessary means to undertake their missions. They do not cross the borders into Iraq with the resources they need, and furthermore, “Arabs are not all alike” and Arab infiltrators into Iraq do not easily blend with the locals.
At the same time, however, the different agendas and modi operandi of the nationalist Iraqi insurgents and their ostensible religious Arab allies have caused considerable tensions. In early summer, nationalist insurgents in Fallujah were about to assault a group of foreign jihadists based in the Jolan suburb and who were led by a Saudi with the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah. Later in the summer the insurgent “authorities” in Fallujah—largely made up of former military personnel and Iraqi police and led by clerics—succeeded in kicking out a number of non-Iraqi terrorists. But this did not resolve the tensions between them and native-born extremists who have the solid backing of a number of Salafi clerics within the city.
The rise of Iraqi Salafism and the infiltration of foreign Salafis and al Qaeda operatives may also explain the rise of massive suicide bombing campaigns in Iraq beginning in August 2003. The numbers grew in the fall of 2003, with some of the most devastating suicide bombings in mid-November 2003 against the Italians in Nasiriyah and in mid-January 2004 outside one of the gates into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) compound in Baghdad.
The number of insurgents is hard to ascertain. Neither the United States nor the new Iraqi government knows. It is possible that the insurgents themselves do not know, since they are waging such a decentralized war. It is also possible that they exaggerate the number of their adherents for propaganda purposes. But what we do know is that they have considerable sympathy among the Sunni Arab populace. While sympathy for the insurgency does not necessarily translate into activism within its ranks, the insurgency does have several layers of operational activists and supporters.
First, there are its combat components—the individuals who commit the acts of violence against coalition forces. The attackers are usually young men—either former soldiers whose attacks and ambushes have been the best organized and most professional, or men without military experience such as students or tribal youths as well as unemployed men—who undertake the attacks with the guidance of older men, usually former regime soldiers, intelligence officers, or security-services officers. There are also part-time insurgents who participate in actions and then return to their daily routines. The most amateurish insurgent fighters were also the “dumbest,” and many have been killed or captured.
Second, the insurgency has a layer of financiers and arms suppliers. Insurgency is costly. Insurgent leadership needs money to entice recruits to actively participate in an enterprise that can lead to capture, injury or death. Support for the goals of the insurgency—the fight for honor, nation, ethnicity, etc.—are motivating factors to join an insurgency, but money and arms are needed to maintain an insurgent organization. For this reason, the former regime loyalists hid large quantities of money around the country before the downfall of the regime. Many of these caches have been uncovered by American forces, and several key insurgents have been captured with large quantities of cash, but the insurgents continue to have access to financial resources. They have received donations from private citizens and particularly from rich families, especially those who are in the construction, contracting, and commercial sectors in the Al Anbar province.
As the Sunni insurgency has grown stronger and developed these different levels of support, certain dilemmas have emerged—dilemmas that are common to all insurgencies. The bloody battle in Fallujah in April 2004 can perhaps be seen as a microcosm of the evolutionary cycle of an insurgent group. Hundreds of the insurgents congregated in the town, particularly in the Jolan neighborhood. They were well-armed and motivated; many were well-trained. When they dug in to make a stand in this city of 300,000, the United States had four options: siege to the city and bombard it until the insurgents surrendered; launch a full-scale but bloody urban assault; walk away; or negotiate.
Laying siege to the city and bombarding it until it surrendered would have been a public-relations disaster both inside Iraq and around the world. Indeed, even the relatively constrained application of military force by the U.S. military over the course of the battle drew considerable criticism from allies. The United States could have launched an urban assault that would have killed many Marines, insurgents, and civilians; it would have destroyed the city—and totally destroyedAmerican credibility—but it would have resulted in the elimination of a considerable number of the insurgents. Rejecting walking away as acknowledgment of political and military defeat, the United States ended up negotiating with the insurgents through intermediaries to bring about a cessation of hostilities.
It was a political victory for the insurgents because the United States had backed down, and, more importantly, negotiated with the enemy. It was also a military victory; they had fought the Americans to a standstill. That the U.S. military could have razed the city did not matter. The cost would have been too high. The insurgents were not defeated and would emerge intact to fight another day.
The Shi’i Insurgency
By the end of March 2004—and to everyone’s surprise—significant elements of the Shi’i community also rose in open rebellion against the coalition when the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr unleashed his so-called Mahdi Army in the cities of Najaf and Kabala. Suddenly, the coalition was faced with the unsavory prospect of a second insurgency led by a faction of the Shi’i marjority and the coalition’s would-be allies. The precipitating factors of the Shi’i insurgency were again the mistakes and failed policies of the CPA, but, as with all conflicts, there were underlying causes.
The precipitating factors of Muqtada’s uprising seem simple enough. From the beginning, when he unexpectedly emerged as a political force, Muqtada had shown himself to be disdainful and critical of the CPA and of the Iraqis on the Governing Council. However, for the most part he was smart enough to avoid inciting violence.
Instead, he focused his energies on revitalizing his father’s extensive political network among the poor Shi’is and the younger clerical establishment. Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr had been one of Iraq’s leading Ayatollahs until he was assassinated by Saddam in February 1999 after he had begun mobilizing the dispossessed Shi’is, particularly those of Sadr City, a sprawling, squalid suburb of Baghdad where the unemployment rate hovers around 70 percent. Muqtada created a militia, a major step in itself, but cleverly argued that it would not be armed and would devote itself to social work in the neighborhoods. But the members of the militia merely hid at home the arms they had acquired from looted Iraqi military stores. The ammunition was supplied by the central offices of the Sadrist movement and members of the militia were able to conduct practice and marksmanship in the numerous garbage-filled open fields that dot Sadr City.
The militia was made up largely of disgruntled and unemployed young Shi’i men who would stand at street corners for hours on end every day. Eventually they would be enticed to attend Friday sermons after which their entry into the movement began. Few of the rank-and-file within the lower levels of the militia—often young barely literate kids who had migrated from rural areas into urban centers—had any training in arms or small-unit tactics whatsoever. The size of the Mahdi Army has been estimated to be between 3,000 and 10,000.
As Muqtada built up his organization, the coalition and the CPA debated what to do about the Sadrist movement, particularly after his sermons began to sound like they were preaching violence against the Americans. In March 2004 when the CPA decided to close down Muqtada’s paper and then arrested one of his chief aides, Muqtada concluded that the United States was going to move decisively against him. He decided to preempt by calling out his supporters, arming them, and throwing them into battle against the coalition forces.
What we need to understand about the Muqtada phenomenon is that it is not primarily religious, but populist. Therefore, attacking his non-existent religious credentials, as CPA officials did, simply because he is young and has not yet reached a level of religious learning within the Shi’i clerical hierarchy was a waste of time, effort, and resources.
To be sure Muqtada draws support from the fact that he is both a Seyyed—a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad—and the son of one of the leading Ayatollahs of Iraq, a man of pronounced religious learning—a native Iraqi religious scholar. But Muqtada is purely political: he is a populist with xenophobic tendencies who does not like foreigners, particularly Iranians, even as he takes material aid from them. Indeed, among the reasons for Muqtada’s distaste for Ayatollah Sistani is the fact that the latter is Iranian by birth. In this context, we must also see Muqtada’s uprising as an internal struggle within the Shi’i hierarchy—waged largely between the “nativist” Iraqi Shi’is such as Muqtada and his movement on the one hand, and the returning exiles on the other—over political and socioeconomic control of the Shi’i population, and, by extension since the Shi’is are the majority, the future of Iraq itself. Whether Muqtada expected a wider rallying of the Shi’i population to his side is not clear, but he knew that no Shi’i leader or organization could openly take sides with the United States or the coalition against him without losing legitimacy or being considered open collaborators.
The Muqtada insurgency has a clear class and social basis. Muqtada caters to the most dispossessed elements within the long-suffering Shi’i community, which constitutes about 10 to 12 percent of the total population of 25 million. His constituents are the young disgruntled men of towns such as Sadr City and Al-Kut, which faces a similar unemployment problem. Even if the Shi’is did not welcome the advancing coalition forces with open arms as was promised by the civilian architects of the war and their exiled Iraqi advisers, without a doubt the coalition did have considerable good will among many of the Shi’is in the early days of the occupation. It is clear from my analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq and from statements of various Shi’i clerics over the course of the past several months that the Shi’is were prepared to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the coalition if the gap between its promises and its achievements were too great. And the Shi’i political leader best prepared or able to undertake that challenge was Muqtada. As Hasan Zirkani, a pro-Sadr cleric in Sadr City bluntly put it in a November 2003 prayer meeting: “We had hoped that some of the problems might have vanished by now.” He was referring to the lack of law and order, rampant unemployment, lack of basic services in Shi’i urban areas, and the coalition’s disregard for the cultural and societal norms of the population.
During two days of patrolling with members of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in early March 2004 I got a full flavor of the rising tide of anti-American sentiment among the young, especially among young men who claimed to be members of Mahdi Army. In contrast, on my previous visit to Sadr City, in November 2003, the inhabitants were still quite friendly despite a serious contretemps between some of them and U.S. military personnel a month earlier.
While other Shi’i clerics have not openly joined the insurgency (for the most part they have adopted a wait-and-see policy), Muqtada’s revolt of April 2004 won support and admiration among Sunni insurgents, who plastered his picture on the walls of Sunni-dominated towns. This would have been unheard of a few weeks earlier. Members of the Mahdi Army have begun to cooperate with the Sunni insurgents, and there are rumors that a number of members tried to infiltrate into Fallujah. The evidence of mutual Sunni and Shi’i sympathy has evoked memories of the 1920 revolt when the two communities cooperated in their uprising against the British; but while there have been signs of cooperation in the insurgency, it has not been at a serious level. More importantly, the outpouring of sympathy for each other’s struggles with the coalition has shown that a genuine Iraqi nationalism encompassing the two Arab communities, but not the Kurds, does exist.
More importantly, Muqtada has gained traction with many Shi’is because of his perceived courage in standing up to the coalition. Whether he did this in self-defense or simply saw it as an opportune time, his act of defiance struck a chord with many Shi’is. By late March 2004 many within that community had begun to see the June 30 agreement to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis as bogus and begun to believe that Iraq would continue to remain under barely concealed American control beyond that date. One Shi’i radio outlet reported, “The supposed restoration of national sovereignty, of course, should be preceded by an end to U.S. occupation. The plan, however, entrenches the occupation and legitimizes its presence.”
Nonetheless, Muqtada has been unable to foment a Shi’i-wide revolt. Many Shi’is are simply terrified of his political vision of an Islamic government ruled by politicized clerics. Moreover, while his call to Iraqis for a nationwide revolt against the coalition has helped him to become a nationally recognized leader, he has yet to transcend the bounds of his own constituency. Class tensions between Shi’is were revealed when the petite bourgeoisie and commercial class of Najaf and Karbala responded angrily to the loss of business because of the fighting.
After the collapse of Saddam’s regime, these holy cities witnessed a massive revival in commercial activity and the construction of housing and hotels to accommodate pilgrim traffic from Iran and in the wider Shi’i world. Despite tension between native Iraqis in these towns and the recent and richer Iranian inhabitants (many Iraqis blamed the dramatic increase in prices and rents on the Iranians), a large proportion of the population was benefiting from the economic upsurge.6
If the Maoist adage that political power grows out of the barrel of the gun is accurate, Muqtada should worry, because he has the fewest barrels in Iraq. His militia is generally the weakest in the country and while it contains a number of members of the former Iraqi army, it also includes a large number of young men who have little or no military skills (including young men who had evaded the draft under the former regime).
Thus, it is not surprising that in the firefights of April 2004, casualties were very high among young Shi’i insurgents in spite of the fact that they chose to confront American forces in urban areas of holy significance, where the United States has generally been more cautious about using force. While many of the Sadrist militiamen were well-armed and showed tremendous courage, they were not well trained and were clearly not prepared for intensive block-by-block combat (as were the insurgents in Fallujah). Few were from either Karbala or Najaf; so they were unfamiliar with the lay of the land and had no time to dig adequate defensive positions or build good relations with the locals. Last but not least, the Sadrists did not have sniper teams—a force multiplier in an urban environment.
Muqtada raised the banner of revolt again in July and August of 2004. Several factors provoked the renewed fighting. First, the truce that was established at the end of the fighting in April 2004 was never really respected by either side. There was constant probing for weaknesses and unnecessary provocations. Muqtada, the coalition, and the new Iraqi government began testing each other. Muqtada had also begun to worry that the interim government and the coalition were about to try to arrest him yet again.
Second, Muqtada’s stature had grown enormously since his first insurrection in spring 2004, while that of Iraqi officials and politicians aligned with the coalition had fallen dramatically. This was yet another time to highlight their ineffectiveness. Indeed, Muqtada castigated them for being “puppets” and for their ineptitude at governing and restoring law and order and basic services.
Third, the disjointed but parallel insurgencies taking place in Iraq in April and May 2004, when both the Sunni and Shi’i Arabs seemed on the cusp of a national rebellion, may have whetted Muqtada’s appeals for a nationwide revolution and for taking a clear and unambiguous anti-American stance. He thought it could be replicated and that he would be the beneficiary. Much of Muqtada’s rhetoric in July and August 2004 was nationalistic, “anti-imperialist,” and religious in tone. Cleverly fusing nationalist, economic, and Islamic motifs, Muqtada accused the United States of seeking to exploit economically and oppress Iraq and the Arab world for the sake of Israel. He called for sectarian unity between Sunnis and Shi’is and accused the United States of trying to eradicate Islam. He made it clear that his goal was the ouster of the foreign forces and the emergence of an independent and free Iraq.
Muqtada’s revolt of July and August 2004 seemed to be better organized than the spring revolt. The Mahdi Army still contained its share of wild-eyed and ill-trained “wannabe martyrs.” But this time it had its share of better-trained small units of six men armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, and AK-47 assault rifles. Such units have been observed to move tactically with the riflemen giving covering and protective fire for the RPG and mortar teams. The Mahdi Army also enlarged the scope of the battlefield. They took control of Sadr City; and they launched attacks against installations and personnel of the interim government. Muqtada also calculated that by making Najaf a stronghold—unlike last time, when the Mahdi Army did not know it that well—the interim government and the United States would have a hard time politically in dislodging him from there. The Sadrists established their stronghold in the huge cemetery in the city and in the shrine of Imam Ali.
By August 2004 the United States and the interim government faced a clear dilemma. An assault in both locations would have been considered sacrilegious. The United States would justify the Sadrist view of it as seeking to destroy Islam, while the interim government would reveal itself to be a “puppet.” Furthermore, any urban battle would be bound to raise the ire of the Shi’is in Iraq and around the region; and indeed, when the United States launched an assault to tighten the noose around the Sadrist strongholds in mid-August, there was an increase in violence in the country and political disgust even within the interim government and elements of the Iraqi security forces.
A negotiated settlement with the Sadrists would be bound to increase Muqtada’s stature even more, particularly after the interim government flip-flopped between a stance that called for no negotiations and one that pleaded with Muqtada and called for negotiations with the rebellious cleric. If, on the other hand, the cleric were to die in battle, the United States and the interim government would face a no-win situation. Muqtada’s followers would likely respond to his martyrdom with an intense escalation of the violence. Muqtada has repeatedly stated that he did not fear death and that, in fact, he was ready for it. In my view this is clever rhetoric; as a Shi’i and a cleric, Muqtada clearly understands the power of symbolism and Shi’i history. I think, however, that he wants to survive and be a key, if not the key, political player in the country. Violence undertaken to establish his credentials and show his independence from the coalition and the interim government is the key instrument.
The stand-off in Najaf was “peacefully” resolved after the intercession of Ayatollah Sistani, which helped forestall the need for an all-out urban assault on the Shi’i insurgents ensconced in the cemetery and around the shrine of Imam Ali. Although Muqtada and his militia earned the enmity of Najafis as a result of the destruction that has been visited upon this economically prosperous city, it is not clear that his political stature has suffered elsewhere in the country. His militia hid its weapons and quietly melted into the Shi’i population, its personnel adamant that they would go back into the fight if called upon. While Muqtada declared his willingness to enter the political process and compete as a national political figure, it is clear that there is little trust between him and his co-belligerents. Serious clashes between U.S. forces and the cleric’s militia continued in Sadr City in early September. Moreover, Muqtada has not lessened his animosity toward the U.S. presence or what he regards as the puppet interim government. He is likely to continue to test the limits of his room for political maneuver by using both violent and political means in the months to come.
The Future of the Insurgency
The situation in Iraq might be called “low-level, localized, and decentralized insurgency,” with large numbers of independent political groups engaging in violence to disrupt and remove the American presence. To be sure, the violence may not seem “low-level” to the U.S. troops on the ground, who have faced an average of 12 attacks per day. But the attacks are sporadic, and many do not end with fatalities on either side. In an insurgency even insurgent attacks that do not succeed (either by killing soldiers of the opposing side or by destroying materiel) are still significant, because they disrupt and destabilize while the government or the foreign power is working for normality and stability. Moreover, we must not underestimate the impact of attacks that cause injury to U.S. personnel. Low-level violence must not be seen as an advantage for the coalition or the new Iraqi government; it is still a condition of abnormality, and it strains resources and affects the state of mind of the public and the authorities.
The insurgency is still localized both in terms of geography and popular national involvement. At its height the Sunni insurgency was largely confined to one part of the country, the center, and even to a particular part of the center. Yet once again we must not ignore the fact that the insurgents have often struck outside of their locales and caused considerable destruction and death. The insurgents do not look or act differently from the majority of Iraqis, and they can blend in easily with the rest of the population. The Sunni insurgency is not national in the sense of being popular nationwide, although Sunni insurgents have argued that they have support among all sectors of the population. This is not credible; neither Sunni Kurds nor Shi’i Arabs are going to fight to bring back the former regime or bring Sunni fundamentalists into power. And both Kurds and Shi’is have issues with the Arab nationalist orientation of some of the insurgent groups. Similarly, Muqtada’s insurgency remains localized. He managed to get some sympathy and cooperation from Sunni insurgents, but, more importantly, by the time of this writing no nationwide Shi’i uprising had occurred. On the contrary, Muqtada has managed to alienate a considerable element of his community. In fact, none of the insurgent groups, whether Sunni or Shi’i, have a nationwide legitimacy in this fragmented country; each has a message that appeals only to a specific community.
But these limits on support for the insurgents have not translated into an advantage for the coalition. In preventing the insurgency from transcending the constraints of localization, the center of gravity remains, without a doubt, the people—ordinary Iraqi citizens who crave security and law and order, and then economic activity.
The insurgency can evolve, and indeed, from the vantage point of summer 2004 appears to be evolving, into patterns of complex warfare and violence. Should this evolution continue, the prospects for American success in bringing about Iraqi security, political stability, and reconstruction will be nonexistent.
1) Between November 2003 and late March 2004 I conducted extensive research on the insurgency and the U.S. counter-insurgency campaign on the ground in Iraq. This article also relies heavily on a wide variety of open-source information about recent events
6) In contrast, Muqtada’s movement had more traction in an impoverished city such as Al Kut, a city which has no redeeming features to recommend it and which I visited in early March 2004. In that city a group of energetic young clerics either sympathetic to or with direct links to Muqtada had built an effective and efficient network of social and security services.