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Outside View: Looking At Iraq's Insurgency

A picture released by the US Department of Defense (DoD) 09 December 2005 shows an Iraqi army soldier patrolling a residence of a suspected insurgent during an area search in Baghdad. AFP photo/HO/DoD.

Washington (UPI) Dec 12, 2005
Iraq is a war where the course of the insurgency remains uncertain. The frequency and intensity of attacks has continued to fluctuate, with no evidence the insurgency is getting significantly better or worse. U.S. and Iraqi officials continue to make claims that the offensives in the west have had a major impact on the insurgency, but the data on attack numbers and casualties do not reflect any clear trends.

Both U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken the insurgency seriously enough to launch major new campaigns and to plan for a new surge of attacks in the run-up to the December 2005 elections.

The insurgency remains concentrated in four of Iraq's 18 provinces: Baghdad, Al Anbar, Ninawa, and Salah ad Din. These four provinces have less than 42 percent of the country's population but account for 85 percent of the violence. Al Anbar has become the center of the insurgent operations. As Coalition forces have succeeded in routing the insurgency elsewhere, the insurgency has increasingly been driven westward. U.S. officials believe the insurgents have found their last foothold in the area along the border with Syria.

The Sunni part of the insurgency has become the equivalent of a distributed network: a group of affiliated and unaffiliated moves with well-organized cells. It is extremely difficult to attack and defeat because it does not have unitary or cohesive structure or a rigid hierarchy within the larger movements. The larger movements seem to have leadership, planning, financing, and arming cadres kept carefully separate from most operational cells in the field. Accordingly, defeating a given cell, regional operation, or even small organization does not defeat the insurgency, although it can weaken it.

The insurgency has effectively found a form of low-technology "swarm" tactics that is superior to what the high-technology Coalition and Iraqi forces have been able to find as a counter. It can move slowly, in cycles, and episodically, and concentrate on highly vulnerable targets at the time of its choosing.

Media coverage, word of mouth, and penetration into Coalition and Iraqi government operations provides both intelligence and a good picture of what tactics work in military, political, and media terms. Movements can "swarm" slowly around targets of opportunity, and rely on open source reporting for much of their intelligence and knowledge of combat effectiveness.

The Internet and infiltration from other nations gives them knowledge of what tactics work from other areas. The ability to "swarm" against vulnerable civil and military targets at the time of the insurgent's choosing, and focus on political and media effects, sharply reduces the need to fight battles -- particularly if the odds are against the insurgents.

The insurgency operates both above and below the level of Coalition and Iraqi conventional superiority. It avoids battles when it can, and prefers ambushes and IED attacks that strike at Coalition and Iraqi targets with either great superiority at the local level or through remote attacks using IEDs.

It attacks vulnerable Iraqi and foreign civil targets using suicide bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and other tactics in ways that the Coalition and Iraqi forces cannot anticipate or fully defend against. It takes advantage of substantial popular support in Sunni areas to disperse and hide among the population, forcing the Coalition and Iraqi forces to use tactics and detainments that often alienate the people in the areas where they attack or attempt to detain insurgents, while still allowing the insurgents to disperse and escape.

These tactics deprive the Coalition and Iraqi forces of much of their ability to exploit superior weapons, IS&R assets, and conventional war fighting expertise, and use a countervailing strategy focused on Coalition and Iraqi government weaknesses. Coalition and Iraqi forces are adapting but are still often forced to fight the insurgency on the insurgency's terms.

The insurgency attacks above the level of Coalition and Iraqi conventional superiority by exploiting a diverse mix of past loyalty to the Ba'ath Party, Sunni sectarianism and fears of the loss of power and resources, Iraqi nationalism against foreign occupiers and Iraq "puppets," and Islam against sectarianism.

Its attacks are designed to wear down the Coalition forces through attrition and destroy their base of domestic political support. They are also designed to paralyze the Iraqi government and force development effort, to prevent Iraqi Sunnis from joining the Iraqi forces and supporting the government, to provoke Shi'ite and Kurdish reactions that will further divide the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, and -- in some cases -- provoke a civil war that will both prevent Iraq from emerging as a nation and divide it in ways that will create a national and eventual regional struggle between neo-Salafi Islamic Puritanism and other Sunnis, Shi'ites, and secular voices.

This political battle is more important to the success or failure of the insurgency than any aspect of the military battle.

The Shi'ite and Kurdish side of the insurgency is far more indirect, but presents a serious problem. Shi'ite elements of the local police and Ministry of the Interior are attacking Sunnis and commiting serious abuses. The Kurds are exploting their control of the three provinces that made up the Kurdish enclave under Saddam Hussein in ways that give them advantages over other ethnic groups in the region, and present the threat of soft ethnic cleansing in the area of Kirkuk. The inclusiveness of the national government is at risk, as is the effort to create truly nation Iraqi forces.

The insurgency so far lacks any major foreign support other than limited amounts of money, weapons, and foreign supporters. It does not have the support of most Shi'ites and Kurds, who make up some 70-80 percent of the population. If Iraqi forces become effective in large numbers, if the Iraqi government demonstrates that its success means the phase out of Coalition forces, and if the Iraqi government remains inclusive in dealing with Sunnis willing to come over to its side, the insurgency should be defeated over time -- although some cadres could then operate as diehards at the terrorist level for a decade or more.

There is, however, a serious risk of civil war. The efforts of the insurgents to divide Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines are having some success and are leading to Shi'ite and Kurdish reprisals that are causing fear and anger among Sunnis. Shi'ite and Kurdish federalism, mixed with the rise of Shi'ite religious factions and militias, can divide the country.

The Iraqi political process is unstable and uncertain, and parties and officials are now identified (and identifying themselves) largely by sect and ethnicity. Severe ethnic and sectarian divisions exist inside the government at the national, regional, and local levels. Popular support for the Coalition presence in Iraq is now a distinct minority in every Coalition country.

In short, the odds of insurgent success remain roughly even -- at least to the point where Iraq remains divided and/or unstable for some years to come. Much depends on the success of the Iraqi political process following the Dec. 15th election, how Iraqis deal with the range of issues raised by the constitution referendum and need for act on its outcome once a new government takes office.

Much also depends on how well Iraqi forces succeed in becoming effective at both the military and political level, and in replacing Coalition forces. Finally, much depends on the ability of the new Iraqi government to take responsibility for what happens in Iraq, lead effectively, and establish effective police and government services in the field -- all areas where previous Iraqi governments have been weak.

There is also a continuing possibility that the insurgency will mutate into warring Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish factions. The new Iraqi forces can divide along ethnic and sectarian lines and much of the police and security forces already are divided in this way. There is also a risk that Iraq could bring in outside powers supporting given factions. Iran supporting Iraqi Shi'ites, the Arab Sunni states supporting Iraq Shi'ites, with the Kurds left largely isolated and facing increasing problems with the Turks. Any precipitous Coalition withdrawal would greatly encourage this possibility.

Anthony J. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair of Strategy at the center for strategic and International studies in Washington DC. This is taken from his latest CSIS paper "The Iraqi war and its strategic lessons for counter-insurgency."

United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

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Former US Envoy Optimistic On Iraq
Washington (UPI) Dec 12, 2005
The biggest problem facing Iraq is neither the insurgency nor the economy but whether its political system can produce a viable government, former Presidential envoy to Iraq, Ambassador Robert Blackwill, said Monday.

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