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Iraqi Insurgency Groups

The insurgency in Iraq has grown in size and complexity over the course of 2004. Attacks numbered approximately 25 per day at the beginning of 2004, and averaged in the 60s by the end of the year. Insurgents demonstrated their ability to increase attacks around key events such as the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) transfer of power, Ramadan and the January 2005 election. Attacks on Iraq's election day reached approximately 300, double the previous one day high of approximately 150 reached during Ramadan 2004.

The pattern of attacks remains the same as in 2004. Approximately 80% of all attacks occur in Sunni-dominated central Iraq. The Kurdish north and Shia south remain relatively calm. Coalition Forces continue to be the primary targets. Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) officials are attacked to intimidate the Iraqi people and undermine control and legitimacy. Attacks against foreign nationals are intended to intimidate non-government organizations and contractors and inhibit reconstruction and economic recovery. Attacks against the country's infrastructure, especially electricity and the oil industry, are intended to stall economic recovery, increase popular discontent and further undermine support for the IIG and Coalition.

The exact elements attacking the US-led coalition's nation-building effort remain unclear. Since the declared end to major combat operations on 1 May 2003, the continuing attacks against Coalition troops, civilian contractors, aid workers, new Iraqi security forces, as well as the infrastructure, have undermined efforts to reconstruct and stablize the country, carried the total American troop fatality level over 1,000, and led many in the U.S. and elsewhere to question whether the country can be pacified at all without a longer commitment than most consider palatable. Attention has been paid to Saddam loyalists, Iraqi nationalists, foreign Jihadists, militant Sunni and Shia Muslims, and ordinary criminals, with officials trying to assess the nature, goals, funding, and capabilities of the insurgents, the degree of cooperation or conflict between the groups, and links between the insurgency and international terrorist networks and foreign governments.

On 14 November 2003 General John Abizaid, the head of US Central Command, estimated the number of fighters operating against US and allied forces at no more than 5,000, and said the insurgency remained a loosely organized operation. Abizaid said there "is some level of cooperation that's taking place at very high levels, although I'm not sure I'd say there's a national-level resistance leadership." He also said "the most dangerous enemy to us at the present time are the former regime loyalists" operating in central Iraq. According to Abizaid, "The goal of the enemy ... is not to defeat us militarily, because they don't have the wherewithal to defeat us militarily. The goal of the enemy is to break the will of the United States of America. It's clear, it's simple, it's straightforward. Break our will, make us leave before Iraq is ready to come out and be a member of the responsible community of nations."

Almost a year on, with kidnappings and beheadings by Islamic militants, large cities still not under the control of coalition forces months away from planned elections, and with security problems requiring the diversion of funds from reconstruction projects, assumptions were being reconsidered and estimates revised. The New York Times reported on 22 October 2004 that senior American officials believed that "hard-core resistance" comprised between 8,000 and 12,000 people, with the number jumping above 20,000 when "active sympathizers or covert accomplices are included." Moreover, officials believed around 50 militant cells were drawing on "unlimited money" through underground networks supplied by people connected with the former regime, as well as wealthy Saudis and Islamic charities. Though some groups had the ability to carry out attacks in regions other than their own, and there may be some degree of cooperation between regions, it is believed that insurgent activities are organized regionally and that no national insurgent network exists.

In January 2005 Iraqi intelligence service director General Mohamed Abdullah Shahwani said that Iraq's insurgency consited of at least 40,000 hardcore fighters, out of a total of more than 200,000 part-time fighters and volunteers who provide intelligence, logistics and shelter. Shahwani said the resistance enjoyed wide backing in the Sunni provinces of Baghdad, Babel, Salahuddin, Diyala, Nineveh and Tamim. Shahwani said the Baath, with a core fighting strength of more than 20,000, had split into three factions. The main one, still owing allegiance to jailed dictator Saddam Hussein, is operating out of Syria. It is led by Saddam's half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan and former aide Mohamed Yunis al-Ahmed, who provide funding to their connections in Mosul, Samarra, Baquba, Kirkuk and Tikrit. Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri is still in Iraq. Two other factions have broken from Saddam, but have yet to mount any attacks. Islamist factions range from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda affiliate to Ansar al-Sunna and Ansar al-Islam.

A picture of the composition of the insurgency, though in constant flux, has come into somewhat greater focus. London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates roughly 1,000 foreign Islamic jihadists have joined the insurgency. And there is no doubt many of these have had a dramatic effect on perceptions of the insurgency through high-profile video-taped kidnappings and beheadings. However, American officials believe that the greatest obstacles to stability are the native insurgents that predominate in the Sunni triangle. Significantly, many secular Sunni leaders were being surpassed in influence by Sunni militants. This development mirrors the rise of militant Shia cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr vis--vis the more moderate Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

Still, the New York Times article also references military data suggesting roughly 80 percent of violent attacks in Iraq were simply criminal in nature -e.g., ransom kidnappings and hijacking convoys- and without political motivation. This figure lends credence to those who cited the CPA's disbanding of the Iraqi army as an error likely to create a pool of unemployed and discontented young males ripe for absorption into the insurgency. Further, this statistic highlights the importance of reconstruction, and the revitalization of an economy in Iraq that can provide traditional employment opportunities. Of the remaining 20 percent of violent attacks -those with political motivation- four-fifths are believed attributable to native insurgents as opposed to foreigners.

In late July 2005, Gen. Jack Keane, a former deputy chief of staff for the Army, said that US and Iraqi forces had killed or captured over 50,000 Iraqi insurgents since the begining of 2005. The Pentagon had been previously stated that 15,000 to 16,000 Iraqis were in custody in Iraq. The difference is explained by the fact that some Iraqis who were detained in military operations were subsequently released.

Former Regime Loyalists [FRL]

Sunni Arabs, dominated by Ba'athist and Former Regime Elements (FRE), comprise the core of the insurgency. Ba'athist/FRE and Sunni Arab networks are likely collaborating, providing funds and guidance across family, tribal, religious and peer group lines.

The Former Regime Loyalists, or FRL's, threaten the safety of Iraqis and prolong the Coalition presence. By capturing the FRL's, US Forces are helping Iraq move forward to a peaceful and prosperous future. Ba'athist loyalists are thought to be responsible for some of the recent attacks against U.S. forces. According to 21 July 2003 Newsweek, two months before the war began, the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, issued instructions, "to do what's necessary after the fall of the Iraqi leadership to the American-British-Zionist Coalition forces, God forbid..."

The document outlined a total of 11 steps which were to be taken if the U.S. overthrew Saddam's regime. These included "1. Looting and burning government institutions..." In addition, it included orders to sabotaging power plants, and creating chaos by utilizing stolen weapons. The Pentagon has not officially verified this document, according to Newsweek, but has called it "plausible." The current sabatoge and attacks seem to substantiate the possibility that Ba'athist loyalists are responsible for some of the mayhem.

In addition, L. Paul Bremer may have unleashed these former soldiers against US Troops by disbanding the Iraqi military. These former Guard members are without any income, but still are armed and ready to kill, making US Troops vulnerable to attack. While the Republican Guard experienced high casualties in the US strikes on Baghdad, the Special Republican Guard was not especially involved in this part of the war, allowing them to disappear with a number of weapons and munitions. Approximately 40,000 men were members of the Republican Guard. According to the 12 August 2003 New York Times, there is an estimated 100,000 former Iraqi security service members without employment, mostly concentrated in the Sunni Triangle, the same region where many of the attacks have occurred.

Islamic Revivalist

Muslims have been oppressed for decades under the rule of Saddam. While extremist elements are inexperienced in planning attacks, other regional groups are sure to come to their assistance. Such groups include the Al- Faruq Brigades, a militant wing of the Islamic Movement in Iraq (Al-Harakah al-Islamiyyah fi al-arak), the Mujahideen of the Victorious Sect (Mujahideen al ta'ifa al-Mansoura), the Mujahideen Battalions of the Salafi Group of Iraq (Kata'ib al mujahideen fi al-jama'ah al-salafiyah fi al-'arak); and the Jihad Brigades/Cell.

Another insurgency group called "White Flags, Muslim Youth and Army of Mohammed" have claimed responsibility for the attacks against U.S. Forces. The White Flags have urged other Iraqis to attack Americans. In a 10 August 2003 videotape aired on the satellite network Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based station, the White Flags announced that the only way to free Iraq from American occupiers was through guerilla war. "We want to warn countries of the world for the last time not to send troops into Iraq."

Ansar al Islam, a Taliban-like, jihadist group with tie to Al Qaeda is also suspected in guerilla attacks. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was estimated to have 850 members, but nearly 200 were killed by Kurdish and U.S. Special Forces in March. An estimated 300 to 350 fled to Iran during Iraqi freedom, after a few hundred surrendered or were captured.

The 07 May 2003 bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Iraq has added to speculation that Islamic revivalists, like Ansar al Islam, may be playing a stronger role in the Iraqi insurgency than originally estimated. L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator for Iraq, has publically speculated that Ansar al Islam may have been responsible for the car bombing. The attack killed 19 people and wounded more than 60.

One group of Ansar al-Islam militants captured in the Kurdish region during early August 2003 consisted of five Iraqis, a Palestinian and a Tunisian. It was reported that the men had five forged Italian passports for another group of militants. It is estimated that at least 150 members of Ansar al-Islam have entered Iraq with the help of smugglers within the last few weeks.

Of the tens of thousands of unemployed former Iraqi security service members, an estimated 2,000 of them, most especially those without any source of income at all, are likely to be recruited by Islamic fundamentalist groups, like Ansar al-Islam.


Recruiting militants has been observed to take place in three stages. First, there is some form of contact initiated, perhaps in a mosque after daily prayers. In this first conversation, a later meeting is arranged. After this meeting, some of the prospective militants are eliminated, leaving the third round of candidates that will train in the campus. Accoring to the 12 August 2003 New York Times, these recruits are instructed to move away from their families and terminate communication with all outsiders.

Foreign fighters are a small component of the insurgency and comprise a very small percentage of all detainees. Syrian, Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Iranian nationals make up the majority of foreign fighters. Fighters, arms and other supplies continue to enter Iraq from virtually all of its neighbors despite increased border security.

Syrian and Iranian involvement

In December 2004 US General George Casey warned that sympathizers of the insurgency within Syria had been allowed to provide funding, weapons and information to Iraqi insurgents and continued to be a source of infiltration by foreign volunteers.The following February, Iraqi television broadcast taped confessions of alleged insurgents, who claimed to have been trained in Syria, possibly by Syrian intelligence officials. Yet while coalition forces often suspect Syria of assisting insurgents, Syrian denials are adamant and hard evidence is lacking.

Also in February, after continued American pressure, Syria delivered Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, a half-brother of Saddam and a financial backer of the insurgency. US officials reported some improvement in co-operation against the insurgency from Syria, whose border forces are too few to police the porous Iraqi border effectively. While coalition-aided Iraqi border controls are strengthening, Iraq's bordes, totalling 3,650 kilometres in length, remain difficult to control.

As with Syria, the Iranian presence in Iraq is difficult to guage, although it certainly exists. Several Shi'ite political parties (including SCIRI and al-Da'wa, both members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the country's dominant political coalition), have ties to Iran. The Interim Iraqi Government repeatedly expressed concern over Iraqi influence, Defence Minister Hazem Sha'alan claiming in mid-2004 that there was "clear interference in Iraqi issues by Iran" and that the latter supported terrorism in Iraq. The recalcitrant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is widely perceived as an Iranian proxy, while in a television interview, Muayed al-Nasseri, commander of Saddam's "Army of Muhhammad," said his group received weapons and cash form both Iran and Syria.

Iran too has strenuously denied involvement. But Iranian actions often diverge from Tehran's official policy: The Iranian polity is fractured, with various power bases supporting their own interests. This was clearly apparent in the aftermath of the capture by Iran in June 2004 of a British patrol boat. After a number of contradictory statements, likely reflecting disagreement between Iranian elements, the crew were released. At the same time, sources within the hard-line Iranian revolutionary made plain that restraint in Iraq was contingent on international treatment of Iran in other aspects of policy, such as Iranian nuclear ambitions. internationally isolated, Iran maintains links with dissidence groups, such as the Lebanese Hizballah, as useful levers in foreign policy negotiation.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:27:33 Zulu