Sunni insurgency in Iraq spreads and intensifies

The Sunni Arab insurgency against US and Iraqi forces rages on, to the point where it can now be considered virtually out of control. Ever increasing US force levels - numbering 150,000 inside Iraq by late January 2005 - have been unable consistently to suppress the insurgency. US officials have attempted to dampen expectations that the 30 January elections will contain the insurgency, at least in the short term.

Over recent months, US officials, initially almost dismissive of the insurgents as "criminals", "terrorists" and "dead-enders", have had to acknowledge the insurgency’s impact on US efforts to stabilise Iraq. The then Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld both said in September 2004 that the insurgency was "worsening". Moroever, President George W Bush admitted at a press conference on 20 December 2004 that the insurgency was "having an effect" on US policy in Iraq.

US estimates of the numbers of insurgents have steadily increased from 5,000 in late 2003 to 20,000 in late January 2005. Iraqi officials, including its highest-ranking intelligence official, suggested even higher numbers in December 2004 - up to 40,000 active insurgents, helped by a further 150,000 supporters.

US officials now attribute to the insurgents effective co-ordination, as well as ample supplies of money and arms smuggled in from Syria and other neighbouring countries.1 US commanders believe that insurgent attacks have grown more sophisticated over the past year; they also say that the insurgents now are capable of destroying even heavily armoured US vehicles.

The sweep of the insurgency also has expanded. It is fiercest in about two dozen Sunni-majority cities and towns in central and northern Iraq; however, Sunni insurgents have also conducted attacks in the mainly Shi’a south, far outside the insurgents’ natural base.

The insurgents have shown themselves able to attack anywhere and any time. They killed the acting head of Iraq’s Governing Council in July 2004 and they have narrowly missed assassinating other US and Iraqi officials, including the chief US inspector searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Charles Duelfer. Insurgents assassinated the governor of Baghdad province on 5 January 2005.

With their attacks, the insurgents have sought to demonstrate that the US is an illegitimate occupying power and that the Iraqi interim government is its tool. In order to discredit the US and Iraqi governments, the insurgents have sought to force international workers and foreign forces to leave Iraq; to affect a boycott or lower turnout in the 30 January elections; to slow economic reconstruction; and to provoke civil conflict among Iraq’s communities. Insurgents have increasingly targeted Iraqi security forces and civilians working for US authorities; foreign contractors; oil export facilities; and water and other infrastructure facilities.

Recent reports indicate that the insurgents are increasingly pressuring US supply lines, necessitating the greater use of air supplies as well as the delivery of gasoline to Baghdad. The most notable attack on an international relief official was the October 2004 murder of the UK-born director of CARE International, Margaret Hassan. In their effort to derail the 30 January elections, insurgents have intimidated election workers, causing many of them to resign; they have also assassinated about a half dozen of the approximately 7,000 candidates for the transitional Iraqi National Assembly.

The insurgents’ strategy

Analyses of the sources and motivations of the Sunni insurgency differ. The majority of the insurgents appear above all else to be motivated by opposition to perceived US rule, but the Sunni insurgents are also apparently working to ensure that Iraq’s Shi’a majority does not take over the instruments of government (the Sunnis have historically ruled Iraq). The insurgency appears to have become dominated by younger, non-Ba’athist Iraqis who want Islamic rule, although some experts believe that ex-Ba’athists remain the driving force behind the insurgency, particularly in terms of financing it.

Perhaps because of their own divisions, the Sunni insurgents have not clearly articulated a set of demands that, if met, would persuade them to lay down their weapons and join a peaceful political process. Some US officials and outside experts believe that the Sunni insurgents will not cease fighting unless Saddam Hussein or some other Sunni Ba’athist figure is returned to power; on the other hand, many experts believe that the insurgents’ goals are less extreme. The insurgents might be satisfied with political and security guarantees, in addition to assurances that Sunnis will receive an appropriate share of Iraq’s revenues. Some of the most active insurgent factions, which are believed to be composed almost entirely of Iraqi nationals, include:

  • The Islamic Army of Iraq - claimed responsibility for a 9 January 2005 attack that killed eight Ukrainian and one Kazakh soldier;
  • Mohammed’s Army - this faction is said to be led by radical Iraqi Sunni cleric Abdullah al-Janabi, who was said to be in Fallujah before the November 2004 US offensive; and
  • The Mujahideen Squadron - claims to have abducted a Brazilian national on 21 January 2005.
  • The Zarqawi faction/‘foreign fighters’

    A major question about the insurgency is the contribution and influence of non-Iraqi fighters. The foreign contingent appears to be a relatively minor component of the overall insurgency but it receives attention disproportionate to its actual influence.

    By late December 2004, the US military reported holding 325 foreign fighters captured in Iraq - only about four per cent of the total number of suspected insurgents held. The foreign contingent receives disproportionate attention because of its use of terrorist-type tactics (particularly suicide bombings) and because of reputed contacts between the foreign insurgents in Iraq and the Al-Qaeda organisation.

    In addition, the leader of this contingent is a colourful figure with a long history of anti-US activities. He is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a 37-year-old Jordanian Arab who reputedly fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s alongside other Arab volunteers against the then Soviet Union.

    Major attacks attributed to the Zarqawi faction include the August 2003 bombings in Baghdad of the Jordanian embassy and the UN headquarters. Among the dead in the latter bombing was the senior UN representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello - the attack prompted an evacuation of UN personnel from Iraq.

    A car bombing in Najaf on 29 August 2003 killed senior Shi’a leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim and 100 others. In captured documents and in statements released on jihadi websites, Zarqawi has openly asserted that his aim is to provoke civil strife between the Sunni and Shi’a communities in Iraq.

    Zarqawi came to Iraq in late 2001 after escaping the US war effort in Afghanistan. He fled through Iran and was based in northern Iraq with a Kurdish faction called Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), near the town of Khurmal.2 There, Zarqawi was encamped with about 600 Arab fighters who had also fled Afghanistan. They occasionally clashed with Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fighters.

    Ansar al-Islam originated in 1998 as a radical splinter faction of a Kurdish Islamic group called the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK). Based in Halabja, the IMIK publicised the effects of Baghdad’s March 1988 chemical attack on that city. The movement was led by Kurdish Islamist cleric Mullah Krekar, who reportedly had once studied under Abdullah al-Azzam, a Palestinian Islamic theologian who mentored Osama bin Laden. Possibly because Zarqawi and his Arab associates essentially wrested control of Ansar, Mullah Krekar left Iraq for Norway. (In June 2004, he was sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to 15 years in prison for having links with Al-Qaeda. However, the Norwegian authorities abandoned an investigation into his activities after concerns were raised about the nature of the evidence against him.)

    Since he emerged as a major insurgent leader in Iraq, Zarqawi has used other organisational names, including the Association of Unity and Jihad. In early 2004, US forces captured a letter, purportedly written by Zarqawi, asking Bin Laden’s support for insurgent activities in Iraq3; an Islamist website broadcast a message in October 2004 that Zarqawi has formally entered into an alliance with Al-Qaeda. Since then, he has changed his organisation’s name to Al-Qaeda Jihad in Mesopotamia.

    Zarqawi was believed to have been in Fallujah prior to the November 2004 offensive but apparently fled before the US operation to recapture the insurgent-held city. In an audiotape statement released on 21 January 2005, Zarqawi acknowledged that one of his top deputies, Omar Hadid, was killed in Fallujah by US forces during the fighting.

    A purported offshoot of Zarqawi’s group is called Ansar al-Sunna (Partisans of the Traditions of the Prophet). It is led by Abu Abdullah al-Hassan Ibn Mahmoud, who refers to himself as the "emir" of the group. His nationality of origin is unknown but Ansar al-Sunna is believed to be dominated by Iraqi nationals4, possibly in partnership with foreign fighters formerly in Zarqawi’s organisation.

    According to its manifesto, which it released in April 2003, Ansar al-Sunna says that it seeks an Islamic government in Iraq and opposes democracy, which it calls an atheist ideology that idolises human beings to the exclusion of God.

    In contrast to Zarqawi’s faction, Ansar al-Sunna has not publicly declared allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Showing itself to be a major factor in the overall insurgency in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the 21 December 2004 attack on Camp Marez in Mosul that killed 22 people, including 14 US soldiers. Before that, its most high-profile attack was the 1 February 2004 twin suicide bombings in Irbil against the headquarters of the two main Kurdish political parties; the attacks killed 117.

    Available policy options

    US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq have increased since April 2004 but the insurgency has continued to grow in its scope and effect. The US-led offensive against Fallujah in November 2004 ended the insurgents’ ability to use it as a base, prompting some US commanders to assert that the back of the insurgency had been broken. Yet these optimistic assessments proved were exposed as unrealistic when violence subsequently flared in Mosul and elsewhere.

    US policymakers have been hoping that the 30 January elections would result in the formation of a government perceived as legitimate, a perception that could rob the insurgents of popular support. However, perceiving the continued strength of the insurgency despite intensified efforts to crush it from the coalition, US officials have strenuously sought to dampen expectations by asserting that the elections would end the insurgency.

    Should the elections fail to achieve this objective, it is likely that US policymakers will reassess what policy tools remain available. Some experts believe it inevitable that the US, if it wants to honourably exit a stable Iraq, will have to negotiate with the insurgents directly or indirectly to try to address their grievances and motivations.

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

    1 Krane, Jim. "U.S. Officials: Iraq Insurgency Bigger." Associated Press report published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. July 9, 2004; Schmitt, Eric and Thom Shanker. "Estimates By U.S. See More Rebels With More Funds." New York Times, October 22, 2004; Blanford, Nicholas. "Sealing Syria’s Desolate Border." Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2004.

    2 Chivers, C.J. "Repulsing Attack By Islamic Militants, Iraqi Kurds Tell of Atrocities." New York Times, Dec. 6, 2002.

    3 For text, see []

    4 Rageh, Rawya. Iraq’s Ansar Al Sunnah Army Gains Clout. Associated Press, December 25, 2004.

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