The 60-wheel trailer was carrying a giant power generator on the highway to Musayyib, 30-odd miles south of Baghdad, last week. Guarded by six cars carrying police and the Iraqi National Guard, the convoy was passing along the notorious Baghdad road near Lutifiyah, a hotbed of insurgent activity where many kidnappings and attacks on military and civilian cars take place.
A banner hung from the generator, like an amulet to ward off evil. Sprayed across it in big bold letters were the words: “To the Musayyib power plant. God is great. Long live the Mujaheddin.”
The sign was an appeal to Iraq’s insurgents, urging them not to attack the convoy and deprive the people of Musayyib of electricity. Whether it was thanks to the banner, to luck, or to the absence of insurgents on the road that day, the generator and the 28 security personnel made it safely to their destination.
Like the people in that convoy, Iraqis are wondering why the diverse people known by the shorthand phrase “insurgents” continue to attack and what they hope to achieve. In the week since a new cabinet was formed, about 250 Iraqis have been slaughtered in car bombings and other bloody attacks, a pace as relentless and heartless as any since the fall of Saddam Hussein more than two years ago. And while on the ground the attacks seem indiscriminate, there is a strategy behind them.
In fact, there’s more than one. That’s because the insurgents are actually several groups of people who might share tactics, but possess different motivations and long-term objectives. Thus the appeal on the side of the generator in transit might have had an effect with one group of the insurgency: those who were fired from their jobs in the military and other government institutions for being members of the Baath party but who don’t really believe in Saddam Hussein’s doddering old brand of Arab socialism. But two other important factions of the insurgency — the die-hard Baathists and the pro-al Qaeda Islamist militants — would not hesitate to attack what they would see as a perfect target: a giant generator, 12 policemen and 16 Iraqi national guardsmen. Promoting instability by disrupting public services and crippling the security apparatus of the new Iraq is the heart of their strategy.
Understanding the different strains of the insurgency is essential to fighting them. Two years after the war and three months after national elections that appeared to be a referendum in favor of peaceful politics, the violent insurgents remain an unyielding stumbling block in the path to a new Iraq. The country can never move ahead until this revolt is dealt with decisively.
The backbone of the insurgency appears to be an alliance between the die-hard Baathists and the network of terrorists mostly under the command of Abu Musab Zarqawi. It is a partnership of convenience; both groups are fighting the same battle, but for different reasons and with different goals.
The foot soldiers who make up the Baathist part of the alliance have a military background. They are former members of Saddam’s army, where they served as low-ranking soldiers, or in the security and intelligence fields. They lost their jobs shortly after the war, when the coalition forces dissolved the army, security and intelligence apparatuses. They were also brainwashed by ideas of Arab nationalism and anti-Americanism during the Saddam years. Being sacked from their jobs only reinforced the conspiracy theories they had been led to believe and it strengthened their anti-Americanism.
Many of them would gladly go back to their jobs in order to have a better standard of living and avoid risking their lives to lob a mortar or fire a missile at a military or civilian target in return for $200, the going rate for such deeds. A former Iraqi army officer, who now works as a translator and is hiding from insurgents, told me that when Saddam was in power, the army trained security, intelligence and Baath party members in conventional urban warfare methods. So with the high unemployment rate, there is no shortage of men able to use hand-held missiles and automatic weapons to mount simple raids.
Directing these lower-level combatants are the former high-ranking army, security and intelligence officers of the Baathist regime, who lost all the privileges and power they enjoyed under Saddam. They have managed to reassemble some of their old spy networks, recruiting former employees to gather intelligence and paying those willing to carry out assassinations and attacks on military and civilian targets.
Their ability to instill fear is evident. A Baghdad resident who visited Ghazi Yawar, then interim president, in the Green Zone told me that when Yawar’s bodyguards picked him up they told him to put his head down as they were entering the U.S. and Iraqi government compound. “They said that I better not be noticed by the terrorists,” he said. The bodyguards said the insurgents “would kill me on my way out if they recognized me.”
They have also infiltrated government institutions, facilitating assassination attempts in Baghdad and other cities of the Sunni triangle. Many government ministers and public officials have been stuck in their houses for weeks, even months. Some do not even visit their ministries.
Their goal is simple: The return of Baathist rule through a military coup. E-mailing from his hideout last month, a former high-ranking member of the military put it simply: “Once we kick the occupation out, we will have enough power and a strong will to resume the leadership of Iraq.” He added, “We were able to do it in 1963 and in 1968. We can do it again,” referring to the dates of the party’s two seizures of power.
To do that, they are willing to make common cause with people who do not share their secular outlook. Asked how Baathists view the Islamist militants of al Qaeda, senior Baath party official Salah al-Mukhtar told a local Iraqi newspaper earlier this year that the Baathists will “support anyone who carries arms against the Americans.”
The Islamist militants have their own foot soldiers in this unholy alliance: supporters who have poured across the mostly open borders from neighboring countries. I believe it is these people who are particularly useful to the Baathists, because they provide a supply of willing suicide bombers.
Suicide attacks are not, in all likelihood, Iraqi operations. “Thirty-five years of Saddam’s brutal repression did not produce a single suicide bomber,” says a former military officer who is now working as a driver.
Syria has been an important base and way station for these foreign fighters. Interviews with arrested “jihadis” and transcripts of interrogations obtained from Iraqi security and intelligence show that a typical jihadi’s journey from his city in Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen or any other Arab country until the moment he blows himself up goes something like this: After deciding that he wants to fight the Americans in Iraq, he contacts mosques in Damascus known for recruiting mujaheddin for the holy war in Iraq. Often these recruitment campaigns are funded by senior Syrian officials.
After deciding that a person is fit to conduct a “martyrdom operation,” Syrian intelligence trains him on how to disguise his identity and how to handle explosives and ammunitions. Radical mullahs supplement this with heavy doses of hard-line religious teaching. The volunteer is then taken across the desert in eastern Syria, through the porous borders, into the Sunni triangle in Iraq, where he is housed by members of the former Baathist intelligence and security network. The second leg of the journey is to a safe house in Baghdad, where he is assigned a target to blow up or sent to certain areas to fight the Americans or the new Iraqi army and police forces.
Last year, the Iraqi government published a list of foreign fighters caught in Iraq. The father of one of the fighters contacted one of the ministers and said that when his son left home he told his parents he was going to Syria for a holiday. A month later he called his parents and said that he was in Fallujah for jihad against the Americans.
Before the American offensive in Fallujah, foreign militants used to go there to join the local insurgency in conducting conventional attacks on Iraqi police, national guards and the U.S. military. Iraqi journalists working for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported that Syrian militias were openly operating in various areas of the Sunni triangle. One Syrian combatant told a reporter, who was posing as a local resident, that he was in Iraq fighting the United States because “if we don’t fight them here, we will have to fight them in Syria.”
Money also flows in from Syria. I spoke with an Iraqi journalist who recently visited Syria. He said being there felt like being back in Saddam’s Iraq. “The place was heaving with sons of Baathists and former regime officials,” he observed.
Iran is also harboring and training members of other militant groups. IWPR revealed a few months ago that Iran is assisting the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, a large, mostly Iraqi Kurdish affiliate group of al Qaeda, and the Ansar Al-Sunnah, which claimed responsibility for the suicide attack in Irbil that killed more than 50 people and injured 70 police recruits last week.
Although the disparate insurgent allies are fighting different wars for different reasons, for now they are fighting the same battle — destroying the current Iraqi government and driving out the Americans. One wants a return to rule by Saddam or some other Baathist; another wants a Taliban-style Iraq. But they’re all waiting for the United States to leave.
The relative hiatus in violence that took place after the January elections is over. It would be naive to think that these groups can be neutralized by inviting them to join the political process. Bringing a few Sunni faces into the cabinet with the hope that they would end the insurgency is like expecting plastic surgery to cure stomach cancer. The war against this insurgency may be unappetizing, but it’s one that cannot be avoided. And its first aim must be to break the Baathist-al Qaeda alliance.
To do that, the war has to be fought on two fronts. The international community must issue an ultimatum to Iraq’s neighbors, Syria and Iran, to cut the insurgents’ supply lines. Although Iraq has an elected government and president, the country is still on its knees and does not have the clout that others have over these states. The reluctant withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon provides a model of how the United States and the international community can exert their influence on Damascus. Iraqis are hoping for a similar show of strength on its behalf.
In Iraq, the war can be fought by recognizing that the country is composed of three competing zones. Ultimately the people of the Sunni triangle will rise up against the insurgency so that they can catch up with the northern and southern regions of Iraq, which are safer than the center. Meanwhile, though, there is no alternative to a carrot-and-stick policy aimed at capturing or killing the most recalcitrant Baathists and offering lower-level, non-criminal Baathist party members jobs and bringing them into the political process.
Only then will Iraqis be able to put away their submissive banners and drive into the government compound sitting upright, instead of cowering in the back seat of a heavily guarded car.
This commentary first appeared at Washington Posts outlook section.