Tuesday, June 20, 2006



Withdraw, move on and rampage?Iraq’s resistance
Iraq is simultaneously descending into both a civil
war and a war of resistance against foreign
occupation. The United States has been hoping to
exploit the divide between Iraqi patriots and global
jihadists, but the Sunni opposition is growing more
structured and unified as it adapts to changing
conditions, and may transcend those divisions.

By Mathieu Guidère and Peter Harling

Descriptions of Iraq’s armed opposition often divide
it into a set of wholly independent categories which
apparently do not have much in common. The categories
include the patriotic former army officers, the
foreign terrorists, the Sunni Arabs determined to
regain power, the Muslims opposed to any kind of
foreign occupation, the tribal factions pursuing their
own specific vendettas, the die-hard Ba’athists - and
the “pissed-off?Iraqis (in coalition soldier jargon,
POIs) who are simply sick of the foreign forces
occupying their country.

While a few key figures have emerged, such as the
Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the former Saddam
acolyte Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, they do not appear as
uncontested leaders. The armed opposition has not set
up any kind of civilian political representation, as
the Northern Irish republicans did with Sinn Fein, for
example. Nor have they published a specific political
programme. So the dominant image remains that of a
diffuse and largely anonymous multitude. But though
that perception may have been accurate in 2003, the
opposition has come a long way since then.

Broadly speaking, the change can be seen as a form of
stabilisation. At first the opposition was
multi-confessional and represented a cross-section of
Iraqi society as a whole. But it has grown more
focused as the political landscape has polarised, and
it is now almost exclusively Sunni Arab. A number of
large, easily recognisable groups have emerged,
further simplifying the situation. The most important
of these are the Islamic army, Tanzim al- Qaida fi
balad al-rafidein (the organisation of al-Qaida in the
land of the two rivers); the Army of the Partisans of
the Tradition of the Prophet; and the Army of
Muhammad. There are others (1). Increasingly, each of
these groups dominates certain specific, clearly
defined geographical areas. There are still pockets of
confusion as to who has the upper hand where (one
example is in the Diyala governorate near Baghdad) but
these are now exceptions.

One area where the opposition is particularly settled
is the al-Anbar governorate in northwestern Iraq. Here
Iraqi aid workers negotiate safe passages with
opposition leaders via what is almost an institutional
process. A formal procedure is in place for lorry
drivers to pay an insurance fee that allows them to
cross the governorate, as long as they are not
supplying the enemy.

Its own ‘business identity?Each insurgent group has
its own business identity, cultivated through
sophisticated communications techniques that use both
audiovisual and printed materials easily recognisable
by their logos and standardised presentation. No group
is ever short of things to say about its own aims,
analysis of the conflict, military performance or
tactical recommendations.

An analysis of recent communications production
reveals another form of stabilisation. Where insurgent
pamphlets, videos and other communications used to be
full of exaggerations, ambiguities and controversies,
they are now astonishingly consistent. In the course
of 2005 all the opposition groups converged on a basic
rhetoric of patriotism and Salafist (Sunni) religious
fervour. Debates that were initially highly charged,
about the legitimacy of jihad in general and of
methods in particular, ended in a consensus that may
be superficial, but that everyone respects for now.
For example, no one openly advocates decapitations
anymore, let alone films them, as they used to do only
a year ago (2).

Naturally, differences persist and there are tensions.
Many sources, from aid workers to local journalists to
Arab sympathisers, have been in contact with armed and
report that Zarqawi is heavily criticised in private;
he is accused of orchestrating the assassination of
Shias. Some combatant groups will only claim
responsibility for attacks on coalition forces,
tacitly disapproving any operations that target
civilians or even members of the Iraqi security

United States marines recently noted, from their
observations of events in the al-Anbar governorate,
that there was a growing gulf between Iraqi insurgents
and foreign groups. The marines observed that there
were clashes without any marines being involved; they
found foreign jihadists assassinated; and they
observed that tribal groups were trying to reassert
control over the areas where they lived. The marines
concluded that the jihad agenda of foreign groups ran
counter to the interests of the Iraqi insurgents.

This assessment formed the basis of the
counter-insurrection strategy of the US, which aimed
to wipe out the jihadists, considered irredeemable,
while bringing the Iraqi resistance back on side via
an extension of the political process.

Yet though there certainly are signs of potentially
explosive internal tensions, stronger forces are
drawing opposition groups together. Local frictions
cannot undermine a high level of overall cohesion
across the country. The unity between the opposition
groups may be little more than a front, but it is a
front that no group has yet wanted to breach in any of
its official statements. No group has publicly
criticised any other. On the contrary, they all appear
to subscribe to a single, clear and apparently
universally accepted strategy. And they all agree that
drawing up a political programme would be premature
and liable to cause disagreements.

As far as military action is concerned, the opposition
groups may have different priorities, but they share
the same informal strategic doctrine. It emerged from
a process of debate and collaborative reflection that
followed the second battle of Falluja in November 2004
(3). Its guiding principle is that, given the superior
firepower of the US, there is no point in trying to
mount a sustained resistance in any one place.
Instead, opposition groups should constantly be moving
into the gaps left by coalition and Iraqi forces as
they move around, which they must, since no one can
cover the whole country. This fluidity blocks any
lasting progress on reconstruction. The armed
opposition effectively counters the US slogan of
“clear, hold and rebuild?(4) with its own “withdraw,
move on and rampage?

A civil and a dirty war
Above all, the idea that Iraq’s is both a civil and a
dirty war has encouraged unity among the armed
opposition. Insurgent groups are all the more inclined
to hang together when they perceive their enemy as an
enemy within. They see Iraq’s government as Shia,
sectarian and in cahoots with, or subservient to,
Iran. Detailed documentation of the Shia
militias?alleged crimes occupies a large part of the
groups?propaganda output. A number of groups have
explicitly named certain Iraqi army units as priority
targets in recent months, and some have even announced
the creation of special units devoted entirely to the
struggle against the enemy within.

The opposition blames the threat of civil war on the
perverse methods and posturings of a government that
will do anything to achieve its aims; it would even
commit genocide if it could only afford to. In the
eyes of its opponents, it is perfectly capable of
staging elaborate and bloody set-ups. For this reason
the February bombing of the Shia mausoleum in Samarra
only brought the armed opposition closer together. Far
from weakening Zarqawi, always the main suspect in
this kind of affair, the attack actually helped to
improve his image, since no one believed he had done

All the major groups blamed the bombing on the
Iranians and their local allies. Their propaganda
carried extensive reports on the subsequent
retaliatory attacks on Sunni Arabs, stressing the
cynicism of an enemy that would destroy its own holy
sanctuaries merely to justify a strike against the

A number of informal inquiries concluded that the
attack on the mausoleum, which was carried out during
the ceasefire by people in police uniform in a town
held by Shia forces, could only have been the work of
the Shia militia. Some also recalled that Zarqawi’s
people had held Samarra for some time before they lost
it in late 2005, so surely they could have demolished
the mausoleum when they pleased during that period.

The mere survival of the Tanzim al-Qaida illustrates
just how complex and composite is Iraq’s armed
opposition. It gives the lie to the widespread view
that al-Qaida in Iraq is a wholly imported body.
According to received opinion, al-Qaida operatives in
Iraq are all foreigners and the organisation works
according to a hierarchical structure detached from
the reality on the ground. This view turns out to be
naive. For while al-Qaida does have an impressive
ability to call on financial and human resources from
international networks of jihadism, it could not
possibly operate in Iraq without a solid local base.
Organising suicide attacks is in fact a logistical
feat. The volunteers have to be found and then
transported. The explosives have to be manufactured,
and the attacks require detailed information and
tactical planning. Iraqis apparently perform most of
these tasks.

Moreover, al-Qaida is particularly vulnerable to
exposure, given its renown, its controversial image
and the priority that the US places on catching its
members. It could not survive long without some degree
of acceptance, albeit passive, in its immediate
surroundings. In the US’s schematic, polarised version
of the insurgent landscape, with its fierce, clear-cut
opposition between terrorism and national liberation
movements, the Tanzim al-Qaida would have disappeared
by now.

Iraqifying Tanzim al-Qaida
Instead, it has mutated into a genuinely Iraqi
phenomenon. This transformation is partly the result
of a tactical decision, aimed at protecting the group
by Iraqifiying its image. As such, it throws the
eminently political nature of the opposition landscape
into sharp relief. This political dimension often
escapes attention because it is always tacit and
opaque. But the main groups in Iraq’s armed opposition
are constantly engaged in political manoeuvring,
adjusting their ideological and strategic positions
according to whoever holds the balance of power, what
resources are available and who controls them.

Zarqawi, Tanzim al-Qaida’s controversial leader, has
gradually retreated from the limelight, leaving an
official spokesman by the unmistakeably Iraqi name of
Abu Maysara al Iraqi to take centre stage. Iraqi’s
name evokes in Arabic the ideas of comfort and ease,
as well as that of his country, in sharp contrast to
the connotations of a difficult struggle associated
with the pseudonym Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Tanzim
al-Qaida has also entrusted the leadership of its
military operations to an Iraqi figure. In January the
group merged with other renowned local groups, forming
a council of concertation. This council elected the
Iraqi sheikh Abdallah al-Baghdadi, hero of the second
Falluja siege, as its emir.

The Iraqification of Tanzim al-Qaida is also the
result of the determination of the US to wipe out the
organisation. Concentrating a large proportion of its
resources on tracking down al-Qaida operatives, the US
has managed to arrest or kill a significant number of
Tanzim’s first generation of mostly foreign leaders,
especially the Afghan Arabs, veterans of the
Afghanistan jihad who led al-Qaida’s early operations
in Iraq. This has allowed Iraqis to rise quickly
through the ranks. In late 2005 the Nefa Foundation
published a chart of the organisation (5), showing its
leadership to be remarkably full of al-Iraqis,
al-Baghdadis and other manifestly Iraqi names.

This new generation is a mixture of fervent young
Iraqis and opportunistic vagrants. They are generally
far less predictable and more violent than their
predecessors. The US obsession with al-Qaida in Iraq
has only made the organisation more dangerous, by
accelerating its Iraqification and allowing it to put
down deep local roots. Tanzim al-Qaida has shown that
it can successfully adapt by finding local
replacements for apparently heavy losses in a short

Tanzim’s name, “al-Qaida in the land of the two
rivers? is misleading. The Iraqi organisation has only
distant relations with the al-Qaida network that was
responsible for the attacks on the US in September
2001. It reveres Osama bin Laden as an icon, but never
asks him for religious or practical advice. Bin Laden
himself is careful to keep his own declarations vague
and non-specific. Even the form of jihad Zarqawi has
been preaching in Iraq constitutes a public
repudiation of some of Bin Laden’s most firmly held
positions. The Jordanian, for example, prioritises the
struggle against the enemy within: for Bin Laden, the
enemy without is far more important. Above all, Bin
Laden does not see Shias as legitimate targets: they
are part of the Muslim umma.

So it would be wrong to see the conflict in Iraq as a
residual battle compounding al-Qaida’s disarray.
Iraq’s is a conflict in its own right, and a pole of
attraction diverting jihadists from other fronts such
as Afghanistan, Chechnya or Palestine, and commanding
the attention and the resources of radical Muslims the
world over (6). It is a hive of activity whose energy
and techniques also radiate out to other conflicts,
influencing them in their turn. Tactical innovations
such as suicide bombings tend to spread out from the
Iraqi plains towards the Afghan mountains, and not the
other way round.

The US persists in dividing the enemy into two
separate categories. But events have shown that these
two categories, international jihadist networks and
local resistance, are capable of cooperating flexibly.
They have resisted a counter-insurrectional campaign
whose main aim was to exploit their divisions.
Alarmingly, the prospect of civil war does not seem to
have divided the armed opposition either. Iraqi
fighters could have blamed their foreign collaborators
for deliberately fanning the flames of civil war, and
broken away from them. They have not. On the contrary,
the atmosphere has only reinforced the tactical unity
of the armed opposition, which is rooted in the fault
lines running through Iraqi society, fault lines that
US policy has only served to deepen.

More about Mathieu Guidère.
More about Peter Harling.
Translated by Gulliver Cragg

Mathieu Guidère heads the Strategic Information
Analysis Laboratory at St Cyr, Brittany, and Peter
Harling is a consultant with the International Crisis
Group in Brussels

(1) For a detailed list, see the International Crisis
Group’s report, “In their own words: reading the Iraqi
insurgency? Middle East Report, n?50, Brussels, 15
February 2006.

(2) David Baran and Mathieu Guidère, “Iraq: a message
from the insurgents? Le Monde diplomatique, English
language edition, May 2005.

(3) David Baran, “Falluja: Iraq’s place of sacrifice?
Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition,
December 2004.

(4) National Security Council, “National strategy for
victory in Iraq? Washington, November 2005.

(5) www.nefafoundation.org/miscell aneou...

(6) See Thomas Hegghammer, “Global jihadism after the
Iraq war(.pdf file)? The Middle East Journal, vol 60,
n?1, Washington, winter 2006.

English language editorial director: Wendy
Kristianasen - all rights reserved ?1997-2006 Le Monde


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