Washington (UPI) Nov 26, 2005
In the wake of last week's attempted car bombing of the Al Hamra Hotel in Baghdad a reader posed questions on the Iraq insurgency, its motives and methods.
UPI's Pentagon correspondent Pamela Hess, recently returned from two months traveling in 13 provinces of Iraq -- her third extended trip -- offered some perspective informed by three years of coverage of the Iraq war.
Hess' answers reflect U.S. military thinking in Iraq -- which itself is formed by many scholars on Middle Eastern studies, culture and Islam.
Question: I truly wonder what they are after by attacking civilians in mosques and at funerals, and also journalists' hotels. It doesn't seem targeted to getting the United States out, and it's making enemies of people they hope to eventually rule.
Answer: The underlying assumption here is that people who blew up the al Hamra Hotel actually want political power. If the perpetrator behind the attack is Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his motives are not necessarily to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis for political power but to a) establish himself as the "big bad guy;" b) push Iraq towards chaos to diminish American power and standing; c) keep Iraq in chaos to allow him ungoverned territory to achieve his ambition of creating a haven like pre-Sept. 11, 2001 Afghanistan-like haven for his growing organization where he can direct other attacks, rest, re-set and raise funds; d) kill Americans and other infidels -- any innocents caught in his wake will go on to paradise anyway, if they deserve it; e) perhaps lay a foundation for a new caliphate, which seems to be his general aim, judging from what he writes. For al-Zarqawi, an ideal caliphate would be a state governed by Islamic fundamentalists that would unite all Islamic people under a single flag and eventually subjugate the rest of the world to Allah. .
If al-Zarqawi does gets to take over Iraq -- which I don't think is his plan as he doesn't seem to have an interest in governance -- he'd likely rule by fear and punishment like the Taliban, and certainly wouldn't worry about winning the consent of the governed.
One of the real challenges al-Zarqawi and terrorists networks like al-Qaida pose is they don't have a really clear political agenda. The U.S. experience with terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001 generally was with terrorists who had some achievable aim, and their violence was perpetrated in an effort to achieve it -- for instance, hijacking a plane with the intention of getting political prisoners freed, and trading the lives of the passengers for the prisoners.
Al-Qaida doesn't offer much opportunity for negotiation because what they seem to want -- a caliphate and the destruction of the West -- is not something anyone can really deliver. There's not a lot of room to negotiate.
If the al Hamra attack was carried out by one of the myriad other players in the Iraq insurgency, at least 90 percent of which is Iraqi and mostly Sunni -- there are any number of possible reasons.
To understand where violence fits into Iraq as a political tool you need to consider that country's track record. Iraq has a violent history and the first instinct of people there is to figure out who poses the most danger to them, so they don't anger them or better yet don't get noticed.
One way to gain power in Iraq -- the most effective way so far -- is to scare people into not crossing you. On this last trip I talked to a lot of Iraqis -- Sunni, Shia and Kurds -- and most mentioned former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as a politician they thought should and could rule the country, simply because he is tough (there were rumors that he had personally shot to death six insurgents in his office. This rumor was circulated for a reason. It impresses and intimidates Iraqis.
There is another aspect to the insurgency that gets less attention and is very difficult to quantify but bears mention because of how it complicates things. Fallujah, Ramadi and the towns in the Euphrates River Valley are historic (going back thousands of years) smuggling routes. During the decade of United Nations sanctions on Iraq they organized and enriched themselves mightily while Saddam turned a blind eye. They helped get many products into the country that were otherwise unavailable. The smuggling organizations are closely blended into the multitude of tribes in the country. They are in some cases indistinguishable and into legitimate business.
There is, therefore, a part of the insurgency that is very much like the Mafia in Sicily pre-World War II, and in Iraq they are able to cloak their criminality in the mantle of opposing the U.S. occupation. So if you are a Sunni and you don't like their smuggling and guns, you can get behind their political views -- however loosely held -- or their money or if that doesn't work, they can make you afraid of them. Chaos serves the purposes of common criminals.
And don't look to Iraqis to turn in the smugglers, because many people benefit. Families won't eat without the money collected by smuggling sheep (Iraqi sheep sell for four times the price in Syria, I'm told), alcohol, electronics, weapons and even people.
The hotel bombing, because it involved suicide bombers, was likely the work of al-Zarqawi or his ilk. The U.S. military believes Sunni insurgents, self-styled "freedom fighters" or criminals, tend not to involve themselves in suicide bombings.
That may be changing, however. There is growing anecdotal evidence of Iraqis willing to strap bombs on themselves -- see the bombing of the hotels in Jordan by Iraqis working for al-Zarqawi. The motives are unclear. They may believe in the cause; they may be Islamic fundamentalists that believe martyrdom will earn them quick passage to paradise; they may be coerced into doing it by threats to their family if they don't; or they may do it to earn money for their family. I saw the site of a suicide bombing in Tall 'Afar in the north that was believed to involve an Iraqi man and woman and two children. Suicide bombings, however, don't leave behind much forensic evidence so it's difficult to determine identity and motives.
Part 2 of this analysis follows:
Question: The Hamra hotel bombing targeted journalists who could actually give the Iraqi insurgency better public relations if their methods were different. Why did they do it?
Answer: If the goal is chaos, or to build an international reputation, or to harm the reputation of the United States, what better way than to target journalists? It serves the purposes of the insurgency and of its top leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's operational commander in Iraq, to convince journalists that Iraq is a place of violence and chaos and is uncontrollable.
I came away from this last trip with a pretty muddled view of the situation. There are pockets of great violence, and pockets of relative stability, and you can depend on nothing to stay the same. Quiet towns turn to chaos overnight and the most intractable village can suddenly get a new generator and water pump and become a place where you can go inside and watch TV for the rest of the summer..
Reporters reporting that Iraq is in chaos and that it is violent and uncontrollable -- which may or may not be true, and if true may or may not be a temporary condition -- erodes the American will to stay and fight, particularly if the American public don't see how its immediate interests are being served.
If you doubt this, pay attention to the White House's campaign to put a happy face on Iraq, its refusal to concede bad news, and to the U.S. military's frustration with media coverage of the war that emphasizes the bombings over the humanitarian and (modest) reconstruction progress.
The U.S. military believe this gives the insurgents encouragement. They think it makes the insurgency seem much bigger and scarier in the eyes of the people they are trying to influence -- Iraqis, who are looking to see who really is the big bad guy that they need to respect; and the American public whose good will is necessary to continuing the war.
The U.S. general in charge of Iraq, Gen. George Casey, last year declared at a Pentagon news conference that the enemy is "not 10 feet tall." Apparently, the media coverage of the war, he thought, inflated the capabilities and numbers of the insurgency.
Finally, don't make the mistake pf thinking that there is a rational reason behind everything that happens in Iraq. The insurgency has coalesced far more tightly in the last year but it remains primarily a fractured body of many little cells -- most of them influenced heavily by tribal alliances, or so the U.S. military believes.
More and more the cells are coming together for more coordinated operations, which is bad because coordinated operations -- a roadside bomb coupled with an ambush, or a multi-front attack on police stations across a region -- tend to be more lethal. But coordinated operations also open up a window of intelligence that makes it marginally easier to catch them in the act, or while they are still planning. The more people who are involved, the more likely it is someone will talk.
Any given roadside bomb could be planted there by someone looking to pick up $100 or by someone angry their brother was killed in an air strike, or that they don't have a job, or that their country is being occupied, or that the electricity still doesn't work, or because someone is threatening their family and they don't have a choice. There is no one person pulling all the strings in Iraq, but the interests of everyone associated with the insurgency are served by all the random acts of violence.
One kind of insurgency the U.S. military studies is the type advocated by Che Guevera in Cuba and South America. In that model, you start an insurgency before you have any clear political goals, with the hopes that during the chaos someone will come up with something everyone can eventually rally around. That may be part of the phenomena behind Iraq.
The fighting certainly does provide an opportunity for various sheiks and organizations to try to gain power claiming to have influence over what's happening. Many is the time when a sheik has said to an American officer: "I can turn off the fighting in this province if you give me X, Y, and Z" -- and of course, they can't, for the reasons outlined above. There are so many moving and unorganized parts to the insurgency.
However, there is hope for some progress on a micro level. If clear motives for the fighting can be discerned, things can change. The U.S. Army found in Sadr City -- a Shiite section of Baghdad -- that when power and water were delivered to the neighborhood the number of attacks on U.S. forces dropped.
Q: I just don't understand the motivation of the insurgents... Unless it is to cause total chaos or simply thoughtless Sunni versus Shiite vengeance.
A: Some think al-Zarqawi is after that civil war. It may be that he wants a war that drags all of the Arab world into its maw to set the stage for a caliphate. If you push Iraq's Shiites hard enough Iran, a Shiite theocracy, may cross the border; the Kurds are likely to pull away if Iraq descends into total chaos, causing Turkey to freak out because it has its own rebellious Kurdish population; Saudi Arabia would get nervous because the ruling family has a weakening grasp on power.
What could be the end result is a massive, long holy war of sorts that ends up with everyone begging for some kind of order, like Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The people there welcomed the Taliban at first because they needed order after 25 years of occupation and civil war. Al-Zarqawi may hope to set the conditions for an extremist Islamic caliphate.
If al-Zarqawi can succeed in creating an Afghanistan-like haven in Iraq then the United States may be limited to more failed cruise missile attacks on fabric tents in the desert, a tactic that obviously did nothing to deter Osama bin Laden from ordering the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. To rout such a network of camps and deny al-Zarqawi a headquarters within Iraq -- if a future Iraqi government is unwilling to do it -- the United States would have to send U.S. troops back in to Iraq. Given the current state of public opinion, that is an unlikely scenario.
Q: Iraq is going to be a really small state of those willing to live under the insurgents if they continue these tactics.
A: "Willing to live under them" is not the issue in Iraq. The question the practical dictator in training would ask is "can I make them scared enough that they don't challenge me?"
That has been the path to power throughout much of Iraq's history. There is no reason to think this has changed. The United States is trying to bring to life a government that actually wins the consent of the people rather than demanding their obedience through physical violence. I have no idea if it's going to work out.
It could be that the Iraqis vote in a "strong man" who makes them feel safe. The excesses of the Iraqi Interior Ministry and its secret jail are likely signs of things to come, and it will be interesting to see if Iraqis care about that.
It has been suggested to me several times that Iraq is a nation of abused children who always side with their abuser. In that case, the tolerance of state-sanctioned violence could well be a "generational problem" that won't go away until the children now grow up.
In Tall 'Afar when U.S. forces got there they found about two dozen Sunni prisoners being held by Shiite police in awful conditions and showing signs of cruel treatment, whom they freed and gave medical treatment to. The soldiers there from the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment helped Iraqis lodge nearly 200 official complaints with the Interior Ministry.
The net effect of 30 years of Saddam Hussein is a deep erosion of the social contract. Most Iraqis do not identify with each other as fellow countrymen on a visceral level. They are loyal to their family, tribe and their religion before their country. That is slowly changing, primarily among the educated, and that is because most of them have exposure to the Western world.
The average Iraqi has enough problems feeding his family, finding work, getting the kids to school safely, keeping his mutton cold in a fridge that doesn't get power half the day and avoiding car bombs to worry himself too deeply with how the interior ministry is conducting itself.
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Outside View: Let Iraqis Decide US pullout
North Manchester IN (UPI) Nov 26, 2005
Give us three minutes and we can find an op-ed piece in a U.S. newspaper calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, or arguing that they should stay.
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