Since the defeat of Iraq's army by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003, a shadowy group of insurgents has mounted almost daily attacks against coalition forces and their Iraqi allies. But just who are the insurgents? As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas tells us in this background report, they are a mix of diverse groups bound by an alliance of convenience.
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The insurgency is both local and foreign, religious-based and secular, well-armed and ill-equipped. Its members include loyalists of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his detractors.
They are united by their opposition to the United States and its coalition, as well as to the new government that is emerging in Iraq. Since the announcement of Iraqi cabinet posts April 28, at least 300 people have been killed in a wave of insurgent attacks.
Marine Corps Colonel Thomas Hammes, author of The Sling and the Stone, a book on 21st century warfare, says the insurgency is far from a single, united entity.
"What you see in Iraq is a spectrum of people from the Sunni Salafi, which are fundamentalist Sunnis; the Sunni secular, sometimes called former regime elements; to pure criminal elements; to the Shia elements, like [Moqtada al-] Sadr; to the mainline Shia under [Ayatollah Sistani], who have stayed neutral and wanted to work through the political process but still must be considered a significant power out there;" he said, "and of course the Kurdish militias are there but they have not joined in; and finally, of course, you have the foreign jihadists."
Analysts generally attribute the roadside attacks in Iraq to former soldiers, because such attacks require practical knowledge and tactical experience to improvise the explosive devises. Suicide bombings are believed to be primarily the work of religious fanatics, particularly the jihadists, the foreign Islamic fighters who see Iraq as another front in the struggle against the United States.
Estimates on the number of insurgents range widely from a low figure of about 5,000 to an Iraqi intelligence service estimate earlier this year of 40,000 hardcore fighters.
Ahmed Hashim, a member of the U.S. Naval War College's Strategic Research Department, has done extensive study on the Iraq insurgency. He says the jihadists provide cannon fodder for the insurgency in the form of suicide bombers. But, he adds, the more pragmatic elements of the insurgency are beginning to get concerned about the backlash of the rising civilian death tolls in those attacks.
"The Baathists are beginning to worry, or the neo-Baathists, beginning to worry about the horrific impact that these jihadists have had," he said. "So I think there is even an attempt on the part of some of the local groups to try to channel some of the suicide bombers, most of whom are foreign, into more precision-guided attacks on the Iraqi forces or coalition forces."
Colonel Hammes says he believes there is not a great deal of trust between the various groups.
"We saw the same thing in Afghanistan. The Afghan parties barely tolerated each other as long as the Russians were there," he said. "As soon as the Soviets pulled out, they started fighting each other. And I think it is the same thing here. They do not trust each other in depth. But they will work together with an eye to the fact that if the Americans are driven out and the coalition collapses, the government, then in fact they are going to have to fight each other over who runs the place."
Mr. Hashim says coalition and Iraqi government raids have chipped away at the insurgency, winnowing out the less-organized groups.
"The pressure that has been put on them has increased dramatically," he said. "So you are seeing a sort of 'combat Darwinism' occurring where the less adaptable, the less sophisticated ones are picked up or killed, and there is less attacks, but [there are] more horrific and more sophisticated attacks."
Mr. Hashim and Colonel Hammes believe most of the insurgents come across the border from Syria. They add that there may be individual elements in the governments of Syria or Iran helping the insurgents because of nervousness about U.S. forces so close by. But, they add, it is unlikely there is an official policy in either country to help the insurgents because such a policy, were it to be confirmed, might invite U.S. retaliation.