After weeks of dismissing the attacks on their troops as the last gasp of the deposed Ba’athist regime, increasing resistance has forced American officials to admit that something like a real guerrilla movement is gathering momentum in Iraq. The hawks in the Pentagon are finding out day by day that neutralising the resistance is proving more difficult than they had expected. Dozens of American soldiers have been killed and more than 250 injured since President Bush declared "the end of the war"on May 1. Mounting casualties have forced American officials, including arch-hawks such as Donald Rumsfeld, to admit that US-led coalition forces are facing a determined resistance, warning that they need many months to eliminate it.
The increasing scale, sophistication and strength of the attacks, now running at up to a dozen a day, are becoming more and more obvious. These attacks are no longer simple booby-traps and hit-and-run raids carried out by small groups using AK-47 assault rifles, hand-grenades and rocket-propelled grenades. Recent reports indicate the use of mines and sophisticated roadside bombs that combine explosives and mortar rounds known in military parlance as "improvised explosive devices." They also point to the increased complexity of ambushes, as shown by the growing use of double or triple attacks and ambushes. American convoys, bases and positions are increasingly coming under mortar attacks as well. Needless to say, such attacks require complex surveillance, transport and positioning of weapons and fighters.
Coalition forces have responded with a series of massive operations to identify the armed resistance and hunt down those responsible. Thousands of Iraqis have been detained in three major operations, and hundreds of Israeli-style raids against villages, towns and neighbourhoods, all aimed at eradicating the resistance. Hundreds have been killed. On one occasion, US forces took hostages to force an Iraqi to surrender. According to the Washington Post, US troops belonging to the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division on July 23 picked up the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general, leaving a note saying: "If you want your family released, turn yourself in" (July 28, 2003).
But the eventual effect of these Vietnam-style "search-and-destroy" operations is likely to be to add to the Iraqis’ antipathy and aversion to the occupation. These feelings are born not only of deep-seated distrust of the Americans but also of the depredations of war and the frustrations engendered by the failures of reconstruction. In a society of close-knit families and strong social ties, it is hard to see how such operations will encourage the friends, families and neighbours of the estimated 20,000 Iraqis who died during the three-week war to feel kindly toward their occupiers. Nor will they soften the Iraqis’ bitter sense of being occupied. These feelings largely explain the apparent ease with which resistance-fighters can attack US forces and then melt into crowded districts and neighbourhoods. It also explains the failure of a US$ 2,500 reward-programme, offered to anyone providing information on attackers, to bring in significant scoops.
American officials are blaming the resistance mainly on remnants of the Iraqi regime: the Fedayeen Saddam militia, Ba’athists and remnants of the elite units of the Republican Guards and Special Republican Guards, as well as Saddam’s massive security and intelligence apparatus. That tens of thousands of members of these groups have survived the war gives credence to the argument that remnants of the regime form the basis for some attacks on US forces. A network operating under the name of al-’Awdah ("Return") reportedly brings together groups of Ba’athist loyalists using such names as Saddam’s Jihad Movement, Jaysh al-Mu’tassem ("al-Mu’tassem’s Army") and Jaysh Khaled bin al-Walid ("Khaled bin al-Walid’s Army").
These units are also believed to be behind attacks on so-called "soft" targets. These include Iraqi civilians working under the US-led "Coalition Provisional Authority," such as the two electrical workers killed in southern Iraq on June 26; Iraqis cooperating with US authorities, such as trainee police cadets and officers killed in a graduation ceremony on July 5, and the recent attempt on the life of former Iraqi intelligence chief Wafiq al-Samarra’i; and the offices of various opposition groups that have recently returned to Iraq, such as Shaykh Jamal al-Wakil’s Islamic Accord Movement and Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord.
But the reasoning that blames resistance attacks solely or mainly on remnants of the Saddam regime raises serious questions about the extent to which the deposed regime planned the current resistance before the war. It also raises questions about whether this Ba’athist component of the resistance is centrally controlled and led by the fugitive Saddam. Some observers and Iraqi members of the 25-strong Governing Council have cited documents, including one dated January 2003, suggesting that the regime planned the scenario that unfolded after the war, including the looting and destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure.
Yet accepting such arguments on face value requires turning a blind eye to a growing body of evidence that a significant proportion of the resistance is neither pre-planned nor the work of Ba’athists. For one thing, it is hard to think of any plausible scenario in which the elusive Saddam could be personally involved in leading guerrilla attacks, even those carried out by the Ba’athist resistance, from his continuously moving hideout. Moreover, even those attacks believed to be waged by remnants of the Ba’athist regime seem to be loosely organised.
The fact that US forces are sinking ever more deeply into a quagmire is shown by attacks claimed by a number of non-Ba’athist groups. In the words of General Richard B Myers, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of General Staff, the anti-coalition resistance in Iraq is far from "monolithic." A statement issued by a previously unknown group calling itself the "Iraqi Resistance Brigades", and claiming responsibility for attacks on American forces in mid-June, identified Saddam as an enemy of Iraq and accused his regime of exacerbating the suffering of Iraqis. Arab volunteers are also believed to be active in the resistance. One group of these volunteers calls itself the "Hizbollah Islamic Army in Iraq."
One characteristic of the non-Ba’athist resistance is that many of its constituent groups are salafi - a fact that has caused some members of the Governing Council to refer to elements in the resistance the "Taleban of Iraq." The germ of these groups can be traced back to the Wahhabi Movement which spread in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq in the 1990s. Saddam’s regime had tried to curb the burgeoning influence of the Wahhabi Movement by using his security services for a wave of arrests of members in 1996 and 2000; hundreds were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. The ranks of the Iraqi salafis are reportedly being bolstered by like-minded Arab and Muslim volunteers, who have been streaming into Iraq since the invasion began.
Realising the role played by salafi groups prompted some senior American officials in early August to claim that al-Qa’ida is behind much of the resistance. Seemingly, the tenor of comments - made by senior officials such as Myers, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US ground forces in Iraq, and deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz - depicts the US-led campaign in Iraq as part of the larger "war on terrorism." But most observers say that there is stronger evidence that it is American heavy-handedness that is effectively recruiting Iraqis into the resistance.
So far, resistance operations have mainly been concentrated in the Sunni-dominated central area that has come to be known as the "Sunni Triangle." This is the triangle formed by Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah to the West and Tikrit to the northwest. The area possesses several features that facilitate this development. The Sunni Triangle had historically been a base of support for Saddam’s regime, and as such has the most to lose by the occupation in terms of material benefits and political privileges. For instance, senior members of Saddam’s military and security agencies and the Ba’ath party came disproportionately from this area. By dissolving the Iraqi armed forces the US-led occupation authorities created an army of disgruntled military commanders and soldiers concentrated in this area.
Moreover the Triangle is a largely tribal area where arms are abundant and tribal traditions, such as revenge killings, have deep roots. So the more operations the Americans launch to "pacify" the local population, the more that population seems determined to inflict casualties on the Americans, in revenge. Another characteristic of this area is that its political outlook has historically combined traditional Islam and Arab nationalism, which makes people deeply offended by the presence of non-Muslim forces in their lands.
There is also considerable resistance activity in other areas. On June 27 the US army said that a soldier was killed near Najaf while he was investigating a car theft. In another attack four soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade were injured during an attack on a patrol Kirkuk on August 9. A number of attacks have also taken place in Ba’quba, most of whose inhabitants are Shi’ites.
But so far most Shi’ite authorities in Iraq have called for peaceful political resistance to occupation. The fact that the main Shi’ite authorities have yet to decide to join the armed resistance is rooted in their fear that the brutal regime of Saddam might return. But the desire of the Iraqi Shi’ite community, concentrated mainly in central and southern Iraq, for liberation from occupation is abundantly clear. This longing for independence is shown in the slogan heard in rallies and demonstrations held by members of the Shi’ite community : Kalla, kalla, Amrika! Kalla, kalla, Saddam! ("No, no to America! No, no to Saddam!")
The question remains how long it will be before the contagion of guerrilla warfare reaches the Shi’ite-dominated centre and south. It seems to be only a matter of time before the armed resistance spreads to other parts of Iraq. Some developments would probably expedite this process. One would be the elimination or capture of Saddam. This would remove the fears that armed resistance might eventually contribute to the return of the Ba’athist regime. This, along with the escalating heavy-handedness of the American forces, would also facilitate what has come to be known as the "Golden Fatwa" (al-fatwa al-dhahabiyyah) by Shi’ite authorities calling for armed resistance. Ideally a joint fatwa on this, issued by both Shi’ite and Sunni authorities, would pave the way for a national framework for resistance that transcends tribal and sectarian cleavages and transforms resistance into an instrument of national unity.
Although it is still far from being a full-scale insurgency supported by a full-fledged mass movement, the Iraqi resistance has contributed to low morale among US troops. Most of the 146,000 American soldiers currently stationed in Iraq are unprepared for dangerous urban warfare. They were originally expecting to leave Iraq in May. A number of them have given statements to the press criticising their superiors; others have written to their congressional representatives, calling on them to expedite their repatriation.
As armed resistance becomes more organised and escalates, such signs of flagging morale in the ranks of US troops will inevitably mount. This will in turn erode domestic support for war in the US, thus forcing American decision-makers to rethink their Iraqi adventure.