All Writings
February 27, 2005

Iraq’s Insurgency– A Catch 22

The Sunni insurgency is particularly compelling because although they constitute a minority, Sunni communities have ruled Iraq for centuries. Now, in the wake of the war, they have been ousted from power without any hope of ever governing Iraq again. The insurgents are assisted, sheltered, and sustained by loyal tribal communities that have maintained their social cohesiveness under all adversity. This situation is not surprising: The Sunnis, who benefitted the most from Saddam's rule, have always harbored deep animosity toward the larger Shiite community while treating the Kurdish population in the North with even greater disdain. Contrary to what many in the administration believe, the insurgents are not comprised of several thousand hard-core Ba'athists and a bunch of downtrodden criminals with no place to go. The insurgents are actually more like a mid-size army, numbering in the tens of thousands. Many of their fighters had extensive training in the military under Saddam Hussein; they are organized, well equipped and well financed, extremely committed, disciplined, and willing to die for a cause they believe in. (According to the director of the Iraqi intelligence services, Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, "There are 200 thousand insurgents" ( at least 40 thousand of them, hard core). It is true that they are assisted by outside elements, such as the Al Zarqawi group and other Arab or Muslim extremists crossing into Iraq from Syria and Iran, some of them mercenaries. We know from captured insurgents, however, that the number of foreigners involved in the insurgency is limited. The vast majority of attacks are planned and executed by Sunni Iraqis–pro-Saddam and Ba'athist loyalists, including Sunni religious Wahhabis (the Saudi brand of fundamentalist Islam) who believe they are fighting for their lives and the future of Iraq. How else would the insurgents have been able to carry out more than a thousand attacks per month (in some months, as many 2,400 attacks) with sophistication and precision? And how else have they persevered, even though thousands of them have been captured or killed, without a constant flow of new recruits and widespread support? In addition, they have developed an equally wide network of human intelligence from the communities where they are embedded, which they have used to penetrate the nascent Iraqi forces and other institutions, giving the insurgents a decisive edge in planning their attacks. The capture of Saddam Hussein's half brother Sabawi al-Takriti may dampen the spirit of the insurgency for a short while but it will not have a lasting effect as the insurgents have long since decentralized their operations and have weathered greater adversities in the past, including the capture of Saddam himself.

In dealing with the insurgency, the Bush administration finds itself in a catch 22-situation. As long as American forces continue to occupy Iraq under whichever guise, the insurgency will continue to escalate. If, however, they leave before a modicum of stability and normalcy is restored, anarchy and possibly a civil war will result. Given this reality, the Bush administration must reassess its current strategy, which is based on the delusional and reckless belief that the insurgency can be defeated because it has no legs to stand on.

The Sunnis by-and-large boycotted the elections because they (1) rejected American meddling in Iraqi affairs and objected, in principle, to any elections while their nation is occupied, (2) understood that the outcome was, in any case, preordained, with the Shiites capturing the majority vote, and d) acted on the common perception in a tribal society such as theirs that any social contest is a zero-sum game in which the gain of one side is considered a loss to the other. That sense of resignation and the realization of what has befallen them fuels their insurgency. And they explain why, even their moderate leaders, having witnessed the unfolding of a horrifying drama, have generally refrained from actively intervening by encouraging and possibly mediating a political discourse to end the carnage. In light of these realities, the administration, by not offering any serious dialogue to end the insurgency but resorting instead to brute force before and after the elections, has made a terrible blunder. Its response has only galvanized the insurgents and deepened their resolve, as the incursions, first into Faluja and then other cities, to weed-out the insurgents have clearly demonstrated.

The struggle for power in Iraq is just beginning, and it may get nastier as the jockeying for power becomes increasingly intense and hostile. In one form or another, the Shiites will play a dominant role, but regardless of how much goodwill they attempt to generate, they will still object to granting the Kurds, and certainly the Sunnis, any significant influence in the writing of the new constitution. The Shiites are most likely try to remove the provision in the interim constitution that granted de-facto veto power to a two-thirds majority in the three provinces if they objected to any constitutional provision. The United States must now insist not only that the current provision be maintained, but that the Sunnis be granted rights similar to those enjoyed by the Kurds who already exercise self-rule in their own territory. That is, American officials should immediately open a dialogue with the insurgency, via the offices of moderate religious and political Sunni leaders, with the understanding that the United States will work with the Shiites toward the establishment of a confederation that guarantees each of the three main groups a high degree of autonomous rule. Without such a political solution, there will be no security, because no Iraqi security force can continue to suffer the daily onslaughts and maintain the high morale and physical stamina necessary to perform its duties. And without security there will be no development and no reconstruction while the damage to the economy will continue to grow, exacting a huge toll. Inserting some US troops into the Iraqi security forces and the army, to encourage and augment them from within, an idea recently floated by the Pentagon, offers no solution. It will simply further entrench American forces, with the Iraqis, both military and civilian, sustaining even greater casualties.

Only when the Bush administration comes to grips with the reality of the insurgency and decides on a political course to co-opt the Sunnis into the political process while signaling clearly America's intent to withdraw its forces, will the death and suffering end and the prospect of a liberated Iraq become real.