US struggles with a mutating insurgency
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Despite reports of growing tensions and even occasional clashes
between Islamists and nationalists, the predominantly Sunni insurgency in Iraq
appears increasingly united and confident of victory, according to a report
released on Wednesday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
The 30-page report, based primarily on an analysis of the public communications
of insurgent groups, as well as interviews and past studies about the
insurgency, also concludes that rebel groups have adapted quickly and
effectively to changing US
tactics - in both the military and political spheres.
"Over time, the insurgency appears to have become more coordinated, confident,
sensitive to its constituents' demands and adept at learning from the enemy's
successes and its own failures," said the report, "In Their Own Words:
Reading the Iraqi Insurgency".
"The US must take these factors into account if it is to understand the
insurgency's resilience and learn how to counter it," it said, stressing that
the most effective responses included reining in and disbanding sectarian
militias responsible for human-rights abuses and repeatedly making clear that
Washington had no designs on Iraq's oil resources or on its territory for
The report, which comes amid intense - but so far unavailing - efforts by the
US Embassy to negotiate the creation of a new government in Baghdad that will
place prominent Sunnis in key cabinet posts, is based mainly on what insurgents
have themselves said on their Internet websites and chat rooms, videos, tapes
and leaflets since the invasion, and how those messages have evolved.
While much of the rhetoric is propagandistic, according to the ICG, it also
provides a "window into the insurgency" capable of informing the analyst about
its internal debates, levels of coordination, its perceptions of both the enemy
and its constituency, and changes in tactics and strategy.
Such a textual analysis, according to the ICG, yields conclusions that are
substantially at odds with many of Washington's current, as well as past,
assumptions about the insurgency. Indeed, "In Iraq, the US fights an enemy it
hardly knows," the report asserts.
The notion, for example, that the insurgency is divided between Iraqi
nationalists and foreign jihadis, most prominently al-Qaeda's Organization in
Mesopotamia (QOM), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, appears increasingly
questionable, according to the report, which notes that there has been a
"gradual convergence" in the groups' tactics and rhetoric.
"A year ago, groups appeared divided over practices and ideology, but most
debates have been settled through convergence around Sunni Islamic
jurisprudence and Sunni Arab grievances," according to the report.
"Practically speaking, it has become virtually impossible to categorize a
particular group's discourse as jihadi as opposed to nationalist or patriotic,
with the exception of the Ba'ath Party, whose presence on the ground has been
During the first half of 2005, when reports of armed clashes between the two
kinds of groups first surfaced, that was less true, but, since then and despite
intense US efforts to drive a wedge between them, the groups have largely
harmonized their rhetoric.
In that connection, "recent reports of negotiations between 'nationalist'
groups and the US over forming an alliance against foreign jihadis appear at
the very least exaggerated", according to the report. It noted that any such
"duplicity" would almost certainly have been exposed and denounced by others.
Moreover, "no armed group so far has even hinted" that it may be willing to
negotiate with the US and Iraqi authorities. "While covert talks cannot be
excluded, the publicly accessible discourse remains uniformly and relentlessly
hostile to the occupation and its 'collaborators'."
That does not mean that differences between the two kinds of groups do not
exist and that there could be a day of reckoning - but only after Washington's
withdrawal. "To this day, the armed opposition's avowed objectives have ...
been reduced to a primary goal: ridding Iraq of the foreign occupier. Beyond
that, all is vague."
Meanwhile, the groups have become increasingly mindful of their image and the
necessity of cultivating public opinion among Sunnis, other Iraqis and the
West, according to the report.
Thus, they promptly and systematically respond to charges that they are corrupt
or target innocent civilians and even reject accusations, despite the evidence
from suicide attacks against Shi'ite mosques, that they are waging a sectarian
Similarly, they have abandoned some tactics that proved especially revolting to
their various audiences, such as the beheading of hostages and attacking voters
going to the polls. And "while [they] deny any intent of depriving the
population of water and electricity, restraint does not apply to oil
installations, which are seen as part and parcel of American designs to exploit
According to the report, four main groups now dominate the communications
channels of the insurgency and publish regularly through a variety of media:
QOM; Partisans of the Sunna Army (Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna); the Islamic Army in
Iraq (al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-'Iraq); and the Islamic Front of the Iraqi
Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Muqawama al-'Iraqiya, or Jami).
QOM, whose operational importance has, according to the ICG, been exaggerated
by US officials, sought during the past year to "Iraqify" its image, in part by
reportedly replacing Zarqawi, a Jordanian, with an Iraqi leader. Jami,
according to some ICG sources, may be a "public relations organ" shared by
different armed groups and tends to be somewhat more sophisticated and
nationalistic in its rhetoric and communications strategy than the others.
Another five groups that take credit for military actions generally use far
less elaborate and stable channels of communication, while four more groups
appear to lack regular means of communication to produce occasional claims of
responsibility for armed actions through statements or videos.
All groups appear to have become more confident over the past year, according
to the report, which noted that their optimism is not only noticeable in their
official communiques but in more spontaneous expressions by militants and
sympathizers on Internet chat sites and elsewhere.
Initially, according to the report, they perceived the US presence as extremely
difficult to remove, "but that no longer is the case".
"Today, the prospect of an outright victory and a swift withdrawal of foreign
forces has crystallized, bolstered by the US's perceived loss of legitimacy and
apparent vacillation, its periodic announcement of troop redeployments, the
precipitous decline in domestic support for the war and heightened calls by
prominent politicians for a rapid withdrawal," the report states.
Moreover, "when the US leaves, the insurgents do not doubt that Iraq's security
forces and institutions would quickly collapse".