Iraq’s persistent insurgency

The resistance to the US occupation of Iraq has defied most predictions in its duration, its intensity, its composition and its operations. In virtually his first day in the position (17 July 2003) General John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command, characterised the resistance as fighting a "classic guerrilla war" against the US-led coalition, led by "mid-level Ba’ath Party activists organised regionally".

The guerrilla campaign has persisted despite Saddam Hussein’s capture on 13 December 2003, a development that was expected to take the wind out of the sails of the resistance. Some US commanders claimed in early 2004 that US counter-insurgency operations reduced the number of daily resistance attacks from about 50 to about 20, and that the US had "turned the corner" against the resistance. Others said in January 2004 that progress has been made, but that defeating the resistance might still take up to a year. Yet the resistance has continued to demonstrate its ability to down US helicopters; devastate buildings and cause mass casualties; attack US forces and installations with conventional weapons; sack some local Iraqi governing installations; deter foreign investment; and slow the pace of reconstruction.


One of the keys to understanding the resistance is analysing its motivations. From its inception, the resistance has represented an amalgam of motivations and goals. Some elements of the resistance want to restore the old Ba’athist regime, while others have been motivated by opposition to foreign rule or the goal of forming an Islamic state.

To accomplish those goals, all elements of the resistance hope to demonstrate that US stabilisation efforts are not working by causing international relief workers and peacekeeping forces to leave Iraq, slowing reconstruction, turning the Iraqi populace against the occupation and provoking civil conflict among Iraq’s various sects and ethnicities.

These efforts have led the resistance to aim at a wide range of targets - US forces; Iraqis and foreigners who are working for the US occupation authority (the Coalition Provisional Authority – CPA); oil export pipelines and water and other infrastructure facilities; and symbols of the international presence, including the headquarters of the UN in Baghdad.

To date, resistance attacks have had only a minimal material effect on governance and the pace of economic reconstruction. However (and perhaps most importantly) the resistance has succeeded in creating a perception of chaos and a perception that US policy is in difficulty. The resistance has also caused the Bush administration to seek to minimise fallout in a US election year by accelerating the handover of sovereignty and security functions to Iraqis.

Composition of the Iraqi resistance

The nature of the Iraqi component of the resistance remains murky. However, it is possible to piece together outlines of the resistance from their identifications, their claims of responsibility and the point in the insurgency campaign at which they emerged. The factions listed below are believed to be composed of Iraqi nationals; additional factions believed to be composed of ‘foreign fighters’ are discussed later.

The commander of US forces in Iraq (Combined Joint Task Force-7), Lieutenant General Sanchez, told visiting congressmen in Baghdad on 29 February 2004 that US forces, with the help of documents captured from Saddam, had made progress against the Ba’athist component of the insurgency. Less headway was being made against the foreign fighters, however.

For the most part, Iraqi resistance fighters have identified themselves as distinct groups, which have been sending written warnings and faxing statements to the Arab satellite television network Al Jazeera, the United Arab Emirates-based Al Arabiya TV and other outlets. Suggesting a mix of nationalist and Islamist factions, they identify themselves with names such as:

  • Al Awda (The Return): this faction received substantial publicity early in the resistance and it was believed to be one of the largest and most active groups. From its name, it is believed to be composed mainly of Ba’ath Party activists and strong supporters of Saddam;
  • Saddam’s Fedayeen: remnants of the paramilitary force that were the most tenacious of Iraqi forces during the 2003 major combat;
  • Saddam’s Jihad;
  • The Movement of the Victorious Sect: another faction that received substantial publicity at the inception of the resistance campaign;
  • Iraq’s Revolutionaries - Al Anbar’s Armed Brigades;
  • Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Iraq;
  • Salafist Jihad Group (Salafi is a Sunni extremist Islamic movement);
  • Armed Islamic Movement for Al-Qaeda - Fallujah Branch: its actual links to Al-Qaeda, if any, are not known;
  • Jaish (Army) of Mohammad: this faction has received substantial attention since the end of 2003. It is a highly active group, particularly in and around Fallujah, publishing leaflets threatening Iraqis who collaborate with the US occupation;
  • Black Banners Group;
  • Nasirite Organisation; and
  • Armed Vanguard of the Second Mohammad Army: this organisation claimed responsibility for the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and threatened attacks on any Arab countries that participate in Iraq peacekeeping operations.
  • The debate over ‘foreign fighters’

    Although almost all aspects of the resistance campaign in Iraq have surprised analysts and the Bush administration, the most hotly debated questions have been the degree to which non-Iraqis are participating in the resistance, and the degree to which the non-Iraqis are co-operating with the Iraqi factions discussed above.

    The debate over the contribution of non-Iraqis began in 2003 after the car and truck bombings in Baghdad of the Jordanian embassy (7 August) and UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel (19 August). The latter bombing killed 23 people, including the UN representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and prompted an evacuation of UN personnel from Iraq. A 29 August car bombing in Najaf killed Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, the leader of a major Shi’a Islamist party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. More than 100 others died in the same bombing.

    A 12 November suicide attack killed 17 Italian peacekeepers at their headquarters in Nasiriyah. An 18 January 2004 suicide bombing outside the headquarters of the CPA killed approximately 40 people. Twin bombings on 1 February 2004 at Kurdish political headquarters in Irbil killed over 100.

    Bombings on 1 March 2004 in Karbala and Baghdad during Shi’a celebrations of the festival of Ashura killed about 180 people. Smaller suicide bombings have occurred since at Iraqi police facilities, the UN compound, a Baghdad hotel and other sites.

    CPA officials and US commanders in Iraq have tended to blame these terrorist-type attacks on ‘foreign fighters’ - Al-Qaeda or pro-Al-Qaeda fighters believed to have entered or spread throughout Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Some refer to these fighters as jihadists. However, the attribution of these terrorist-type attacks to Al-Qaeda-type jihadist fighters appears to be based more on perceptions and assumptions than on hard evidence.

    Suicide bombings and other mass-casualty attacks on non-combatants have been a hallmark of major terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. However, only a small percentage (about 10%) of the insurgents captured so far have been non-Iraqi nationals. Moreover, little firm evidence based on investigations of the suicide bombings or other attacks has been released that demonstrates that these attacks were the work of non-Iraqis.

    Not only have some US commanders blamed the terrorist-type attacks on foreign fighters but many have also identified a specific faction and a specific pro-Al-Qaeda terrorist chieftain. The figure mentioned most widely in these attacks has been Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a 35-year-old Jordanian who fought in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and who has been linked by many experts to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi allegedly was responsible for the foiled ‘millennium plots’ in December 1999 that targeted sites in Jordan and Los Angeles International Airport.

    After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the US-led defeat of the Taliban, Zarqawi reportedly fled Afghanistan for northern Iraq, where he and his mostly Arab associates were hosted by a radical Islamist Kurdish faction based near Halabja called Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam). Zarqawi largely took over Ansar al-Islam, a splinter faction of a Kurdish Islamist group, and harnessed it for his own use. He is believed to be in Iraq and some US counter-insurgent commanders recently believed they were close to catching him.

    In late 2003 some US commanders, including Lieut Gen Sanchez, began identifying a new jihadist faction operating in Iraq called Ansar al-Sunna (Partisans of the Way of the Prophet). The group is believed to be a splinter faction of Ansar al-Islam. Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the Irbil bombings in February 2004. It is also believed that Ansar al-Sunna consists of foreign and Iraqi Islamists working together. Indications that Iraqi nationals are working with Ansar al-Sunna have apparently caused some US commanders to alter their understanding of the insurgency, and has led them to consider that some of the terrorist-type mass-casualty attacks may in fact have been conducted by Iraqi Islamists rather than foreign jihadists.


    The implications of the debate over foreign involvement are significant. If it is shown that the resistance is driven primarily by foreign jihadists, the Bush administration could use that judgment to suggest that Iraqi nationals largely accept the US occupation of Iraq and that the Iraq war is a crucial front in the overall war on terrorism that began after 11 September. A resistance driven primarily by Iraqi nationals, however, could suggest that the US occupation lacks popularity among Iraqis and that the US invasion prompted terrorism in Iraq that would not have existed otherwise.

    Kenneth Katzman is a senior analyst working on the Middle East and terrorism issues at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, DC

    Explore our related content